The Attorney General (AG) is the chief lawyer for the state government and is elected to a four-year term. Unlike the office's counterpart at the national level, the Attorney General's legal role is primarily civil rather than criminal. Any time a suit is filed against or by the state, the AG's office handles the related legal activities. Prominent recent examples include the suit against the major tobacco companies filed by several states in the 1990s, which then-Attorney General Dan Morales spearheaded on Texas' behalf, and the defense of Texas' school financing system, in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Though candidates for Attorney General usually emphasize crime issues and their law and order credentials when they campaign for office, most law enforcement and criminal matters are handled at the city and county level. The Attorney General's role is limited to providing support and advice to these officials and promoting public awareness on crime and safety issues. The Attorney General may also assist in a particular criminal case at the request of local prosecutors if the case involves a state interest.
The Attorney General can have a significant impact on public policy when he or she issues opinions on the legality or constitutionality of proposed or enacted laws or on the actions or policies of government agencies. Any state or local government office can request a legal opinion from the Attorney General, and the resulting opinion has the effect of law unless it is altered or overturned by the legislature or a court. Opinions thus have an impact on existing law and can become a powerful public platform for the Attorney General to further his or her political ambition. Many opinions, though, are largely technical and mundane. The Attorney General's web site contains extensive information on past and pending opinions and illustrates the variety of matters on which the office receives requests for opinions.
Seemingly trivial technicalities notwithstanding, the Attorney General can become involved in a wide range of high-profile public policy issues, which keeps the office in the public eye. Among the issues various office holders have promoted in recent years are environmental issues, health protection, civil rights, and consumer issues such as product safety, deceptive advertising, and fraud protection. In most of these cases, action on particular issues reflected the priorities of specific officeholders. Dan Morales (1991-1999) joined lawsuits against tobacco companies on his own initiative, an action that eventually resulted in a $17.3 billion judgment in the state's favor. His successor John Cornyn, who opposed such large damage judgments, investigated work on the tobacco settlement done by lawyers hired by Morales. These lawyers had earned approximately $3.3 billion in legal fees. (The investigation received considerable public attention, and Morales was sentenced to four years in prison in 2003 for crimes related to his attempt to funnel part of the legal fees to a friend.)
One of the most significant and sensitive areas of action by the Attorney General is child support collection. Attorneys General Jim Mattox (1983-1991) and Dan Morales (1991-1999) emphasized child support payments as an important part of their office's duties, although in the mid-1990s the office came under criticism by the public and in the legislature for the office's low collection rate and other problems, which ultimately resulted in closer legislative oversight of child support services. Performing these services is a huge job: in fiscal year 2000, the office collected over one billion dollars in child support payments. This capped a decade of increases in collections as the office became increasingly focused on the issue. By 2002 collections had risen to over $1.4 billion, while the number who received child support more than doubled compared to the number in 1998.
Because the office also defends the state against suits, attorneys general are not able to choose all of their battles and can find themselves defending policies they would not otherwise choose to defend. Recent attorneys general have been involved in defending state law and policies on public school financing, Texas' method of selecting judges, the constitutionality of the state prison system, and state redistricting plans.
Attorney General Greg Abbott was first elected to the office in 2002, succeeding fellow Republican John Cornyn, who successfully ran for the U.S. Senate in the same election after being elected AG in 1998. Abbott was reelected in 2006 with 59.5 percent of the vote and again in 2010 with 64.1 percent of the vote.