United States Attorneys (also known as chief federal prosecutors and, historically, as United States District Attorneys) represent the United States federal government in United States district court and United States court of appeals.
The prosecution is the legal party responsible for presenting the case against an individual suspected of breaking the law, initiating and directing further criminal investigations, guiding and recommending the sentencing of offenders, and are the only attorneys allowed to participate in grand jury proceedings.
There are 93 U.S. Attorney offices located throughout the United States, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands. As of June 2017, most of the U.S. Attorney positions have been held by acting or interim appointees since at least March.[note 1] One U.S. Attorney is assigned to each of the judicial districts, with the exception of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands where a single U.S. Attorney serves both districts. Each U.S. Attorney is the chief federal law enforcement officer within his or her particular jurisdiction, acting under the guidance of the United States Attorneys' Manual. They supervise district offices with as many as 350 Assistant U.S. Attorneys (AUSAs) and as many as 350 support personnel.
An Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA), or federal prosecutor, is a public official who represents the federal government on behalf of the U.S. Attorney (USA) in criminal prosecutions, and in certain civil cases as either the plaintiff or the defendant. In carrying out their duties as prosecutors, AUSAs have the authority to investigate persons, issue subpoenas, file formal criminal charges, plea bargain with defendants, and grant immunity to witnesses and accused criminals.
U.S. Attorneys and their offices are part of the Department of Justice. U.S. Attorneys receive oversight, supervision, and administrative support services through the Justice Department's Executive Office for United States Attorneys. Selected U.S. Attorneys participate in the Attorney General's Advisory Committee of United States Attorneys.
The Office of the United States Attorney was created by the Judiciary Act of 1789, along with the office of Attorney General and the United States Marshals Service. The same act also specified the structure of the Supreme Court of the United States and established inferior courts making up the United States Federal Judiciary, including a district court system. Thus, the office of U.S. Attorney is older than the Department of Justice. The Judiciary Act of 1789 provided for the appointment in each judicial district of a "Person learned in the law to act as attorney for the United States...whose duty it shall be to prosecute in each district all delinquents for crimes and offenses cognizable under the authority of the United States, and all civil actions in which the United States shall be concerned..." Prior to the existence of the Department of Justice, the U.S. Attorneys were independent of the Attorney General, and did not come under the AG's supervision and authority until 1870, with the creation of the Department of Justice.
The U.S. Attorney is appointed by the President of the United States for a term of four years, with appointments subject to confirmation by the Senate. A U.S. Attorney continues in office, beyond the appointed term, until a successor is appointed and qualified. By law, each United States attorney is subject to removal by the President. The Attorney General has had the authority since 1986 to appoint interim U.S. Attorneys to fill a vacancy.
|Dismissal of U.S. attorneys controversy|
(c) A person appointed as United States attorney under this section may serve until the earlier of—
- (1) the qualification of a United States attorney for such district appointed by the President under section 541 of this title; or
- (2) the expiration of 120 days after appointment by the Attorney General under this section.
(d) If an appointment expires under subsection (c)(2), the district court for such district may appoint a United States attorney to serve until the vacancy is filled. The order of appointment by the court shall be filed with the clerk of the court.
(c) A person appointed as United States attorney under this section may serve until the qualification of a United States Attorney for such district appointed by the President under section 541 of this title.
This, in effect, extinguished the 120-day limit on interim U.S. Attorneys, and their appointment had an indefinite term. If the president failed to put forward any nominee to the Senate, then the Senate confirmation process was avoided, as the Attorney General-appointed interim U.S. Attorney could continue in office without limit or further action. Related to the dismissal of U.S. attorneys controversy, in March 2007 the Senate and the House voted to overturn the amendments of the USA PATRIOT Act to the interim appointment statute. The bill was signed by President George W. Bush, and became law in June 2007.
|“||When first looking into this issue, I found that the statutes had given the courts the authority to appoint an interim U.S. attorney and that this dated back as far as the Civil War. Specifically, the authority was first vested with the circuit courts in March 1863.
Then, in 1898, a House of Representatives report explained that while Congress believed it was important to have the courts appoint an interim U.S. attorney:
‘There was a problem relying on circuit courts since the circuit justice is not always to be found in the circuit and time is wasted in ascertaining his whereabouts.’
Therefore, at that time, the interim appointment authority was switched to the district courts; that is, in 1898 it was switched to the district courts.
Thus, for almost 100 years, the district courts were in charge of appointing interim U.S. attorneys, and they did so with virtually no problems. This structure was left undisturbed until 1986 when the statute was changed during the Reagan administration. In a bill that was introduced by Senator Strom Thurmond, the statute was changed to give the appointment authority to the Attorney General, but even then it was restricted and the Attorney General had a 120-day time limit. After that time, if a nominee was not confirmed, the district courts would appoint an interim U.S. attorney. The adoption of this language was part of a larger package that was billed as technical amendments to criminal law, and thus there was no recorded debate in either the House or the Senate and both Chambers passed the bill by voice vote.
Then, 20 years later, in March 2006 – again without much debate and again as a part of a larger package – a statutory change was inserted into the PATRIOT Act reauthorization. This time, the Executive's power was expanded even further, giving the Attorney General the authority to appoint an interim replacement indefinitely and without Senate confirmation.
The U.S. Attorney is both the primary representative and the administrative head of the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the district. The U.S. Attorney's Office (USAO) is the chief prosecutor for the United States in criminal law cases, and represents the United States in civil law cases as either the defendant or plaintiff, as appropriate. However, they are not the only one that can represent the United States in Court. In certain circumstances, using an action called a qui tam, any U.S. citizen, provided they are represented by an attorney, can represent the interests of the United States, and share in penalties assessed against guilty parties.
The U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia has the additional responsibility of prosecuting local criminal cases in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, the equivalent of a municipal court for the national capital.
The Executive Office for United States Attorneys (EOUSA) provides the administrative support for the 93 United States Attorneys (encompassing 94 United States Attorneys' offices, as the Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands has a single U.S. Attorney for both districts), including:
These responsibilities include certain legal, budgetary, administrative, and personnel services, as well as legal education.
The EOUSA was created on April 6, 1953, by Attorney General Order No. 8-53 to provide for close liaison between the Department of Justice in Washington, DC, and the 93 U.S. attorneys located throughout the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It was organized by Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals judge James R. Browning, who also served as its first chief.
Note: Except as indicated parenthetically, the foregoing links are to the corresponding district court, rather than to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
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