About the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ)

Sculpture of the Scales of Justice
The Scales of Justice. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images News

The United States Department of Justice (DOJ), also known as the Justice Department, is a Cabinet-level department in the executive branch of the U.S. federal government. The Justice Department is responsible for enforcing the laws enacted by Congress, administration of the U.S. justice system, and ensuring that the civil and constitutional rights of all Americans are upheld. The DOJ was established in 1870, during the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant, and spent its early years prosecuting members of the Ku Klux Klan.

The DOJ oversees the activities of multiple federal law enforcement agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The DOJ represents and defends the U.S. government’s position in legal proceedings, including cases heard by the Supreme Court.

The DOJ also investigates cases of financial fraud, administers the federal prison system, and reviews the actions of local law enforcement agencies according to the provisions of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. In addition, the DOJ oversees the actions of the 93 U.S. Attorneys who represent the federal government in courtrooms nationwide.

Organization and History

The Department of Justice is headed by the United States Attorney General, who is nominated by the President of the United States and must be confirmed by a majority vote of the U.S. Senate. The Attorney General is a member of the President’s Cabinet.

At first, a one-person, part-time job, the position of Attorney General was established by the Judiciary Act of 1789. At the time, the duties of the Attorney General were limited to providing legal advice to the president and Congress. Until 1853, the Attorney General, as a part-time employee, was paid substantially less than the other Cabinet members. As a result, those early Attorneys General typically supplemented their salary by continuing to conduct their own private law practices, often representing paying clients before state and local courts in both civil and criminal cases.

In 1830 and again in 1846, various members of Congress tried to make the Attorney General's Office a full-time position. Finally, in 1869, Congress considered and passed a bill creating a Department of Justice to be headed by a full-time Attorney General.

President Grant signed the bill into law on June 22, 1870, and the Department of Justice officially began operations on July 1, 1870.

Appointed by President Grant, Amos T. Akerman served as America’s first Attorney General and used his position to vigorously pursue and prosecute Ku Klux Klan members. During President Grant's first term alone, the Justice Department had issued indictments against Klan members, with over 550 convictions. In 1871, those numbers increased to 3,000 indictments and 600 convictions.

The 1869 law that created the Department of Justice also increased the Attorney General's responsibilities to include the supervision of all United States Attorneys, the prosecution of all federal crimes, and the exclusive representation of the United States in all court actions. The law also permanently barred the federal government from using private lawyers and created the office of Solicitor General to represent the government before the Supreme Court.

In 1884, control of the federal prison system was transferred to the Justice Department from the Department of the Interior. In 1887, enactment of the Interstate Commerce Act gave the Justice Department responsibility for some law enforcement functions.

In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order giving the Justice Department responsibility for defending the United States against claims and demands filed against the government.

Role of the Attorney General

As the head of the Department of Justice and a member of the President’s Cabinet, the United States Attorney General (A.G.) serves as the chief lawyer representing the interests of the U.S. federal government and as chief legal counsel to the President of the United States. Along with the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the Secretary of Defense, the Attorney General is generally considered to be one of the four most important Cabinet members because of the gravity of their duties and the age of the departments they oversee.

Photograph of US Attorney General William Barr testifying to House Appropriations Committee
US Attorney General William Barr. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

The Attorney General is responsible for interpreting the laws enacted by Congress and advising the president on the proper application of those laws when necessary. In addition, the A.G. directs investigations into violations of federal laws and oversees the operation of federal prisons. The A.G. also supervises the United States attorneys and marshals within their judicial districts and may be called upon to represent the United States before the Supreme Court in extremely important cases.

The current and 85th United States Attorney General is William Barr, appointed by President Donald J. Trump on December 7, 2018, and confirmed by the Senate on February 14, 2019.

Mission Statement

The mission of the Attorney General and the U.S. Attorneys is: “To enforce the law and defend the interests of the United States according to the law; to ensure public safety against threats foreign and domestic; to provide federal leadership in preventing and controlling crime; to seek just punishment for those guilty of unlawful behavior; and to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans.”  

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Longley, Robert. "About the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/about-the-us-department-of-justice-doj-3319874. Longley, Robert. (2020, August 28). About the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/about-the-us-department-of-justice-doj-3319874 Longley, Robert. "About the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/about-the-us-department-of-justice-doj-3319874 (accessed March 24, 2023).