The Attorney General of Virginia is an elected constitutional position that holds an executive office in the government of Virginia. Attorneys General are elected for a four-year term in the year following a presidential election (2005, 2009, 2013, etc.). There are no term limits restricting the number of terms someone can serve as Attorney General.
The position of Attorney General is established by Article V, Section 15 of the Constitution of Virginia, and they are elected for the same time and term as the Governor. To stand for Attorney General, a person must be at least thirty years old, be a citizen of the United States, and have the same qualifications required of a Virginia Circuit Court judge.
The Attorney General heads the Office of the Attorney General, also known as the Department of Law. The Attorney General and their Office have several duties and powers granted by state law. These include:
- Providing legal advice and representation in court for the Governor and the state government in general
- Providing legal advice, official opinions, to members of the Virginia General Assembly and local government officials
- Defending the state in cases of criminal appeals and suits against the state
- Defending the constitutionality of state laws
- Collecting money owed to various state institutions
In order to fulfill these responsibilities, the Attorney General oversees one of the largest law firms in Virginia. The full-time staff includes a chief deputy attorney general, five deputy attorneys general and about 150 assistant attorneys general, 40 additional full-time lawyers appointed as special counsel to particular agencies, and 140 legal assistants, legal secretaries and other professional support staff. The Office of the Attorney General is structured very much like a private law firm, with sections devoted to legal specialties.
The Attorney General is second in the line of gubernatorial succession. Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Governor of Virginia, the Governor is replaced by the Lieutenant Governor of Virginia. However, if there is also a vacancy in the office of Lieutenant Governor, then the Attorney General becomes Governor.
Stepping stone to higher office
Because it is one of only three statewide elected offices, the post of Attorney General is seen as a stepping-stone to higher office, especially Governor of Virginia. Along with the Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, the Attorney General is seen as one of two candidates in contention to replace the sitting Governor, who is constitutionally barred from running for re-election. Following the 2001 election of Governor Mark Warner, it was widely believed that the 2005 election would be between then-Lieutenant Governor Tim Kaine and then-Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, which is precisely what occurred, with Kaine winning and becoming Virginia's 70th Governor. A similar scenario occurred in 1981, when then-Lieutenant Governor Chuck Robb defeated then-Attorney General Marshall Coleman and again in 1997 when then-Attorney General Jim Gilmore defeated then-Lieutenant Governor Don Beyer.
When separate parties capture the Attorney General and Lieutenant Governor's offices, these officeholders are seen as the clear frontrunners for their parties' nominations in the next gubernatorial election. When the same party captures both offices, intraparty rivalries and rifts can develop around which person should be the next gubernatorial nominee. For example, in 2001, there was a bitter intraparty battle in the Republican party between Attorney General Mark Earley, who was strongly backed by social conservatives, and Lieutenant Governor John H. Hager, who was backed by other factions of the party. Earley prevailed, but Hager and many of his supporters gave only perfunctory endorsements of Earley or openly supported the successful Democratic nominee Mark Warner. A comparable intramural battle occurred in 2013, when Social Conservatives and Tea Party Virginians backed Ken Cuccinelli, with more Moderate Conservatives backing Lt. Gov. Bill Boiling. The Virginia Republican Party, led by backers of Cuccinelli, changed the nomination procedure from a statewide primary to a nomination by convention. Cuccinelli won the nomination in 2013. When one party captures neither office, it is left without a frontrunner for the next gubernatorial election. However, this allowed two of the most popular recent governors, Warner and George Allen, to win their parties' nominations and the subsequent elections without having held state-wide office.
It is a Virginia tradition that Attorneys General who are running for Governor resign from office before the conclusion of the four-year term for which they are elected. This has provided political fodder for their opponents, with Mark Earley criticized early in 2001 for not resigning (though he would resign in June of that year), with critics saying he could not campaign and serve effectively as Attorney General simultaneously, while Jerry Kilgore was criticized for resigning when he did so in February 2005, with critics saying he was abandoning his responsibilities to campaign. Similarly, in February 2009, then Attorney General Bob McDonnell resigned to focus primarily on his campaign for governor. Some Attorneys General have not resigned, including Marshall Coleman in 1981 and Ken Cuccinelli in 2013. When an Attorney General resigns, it is the responsibility of the Virginia General Assembly to elect a replacement to finish the term of office. Often the Chief Deputy Attorney General is chosen, as in the case of Judith Jagdmann. The Lieutenant Governor is not expected to resign as the official duties of the office are very limited.
List of recent Attorneys General
- Virginia Attorney General official website
- Virginia Attorney General articles at Legal Newsline Legal Journal
- Virginia Attorney General articles at ABA Journal
- News and Commentary at FindLaw
- Code of Virginia at Law.Justia.com
- U.S. Supreme Court Opinions - "Cases with title containing: State of Virginia" at FindLaw
- The Virginia Bar Association
- Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring profile at National Association of Attorneys General
- Press releases at Virginia Attorney General