About the United States Attorneys

The Government's Lawyers in Criminal and Civil Issues

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

The United States Attorneys, under the direction of the United States Attorney General, serve as the federal government’s chief lawyers working to ensure “that the laws be faithfully executed” in courtrooms throughout the nation. Within each of the nation’s 94 federal judicial districts, the presidentially-appointed United States Attorney acts the primary federal prosecutor in criminal cases and also participates in the litigation of civil cases involving the United States.

There are currently 93 U.S. Attorneys based throughout the United States, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands. In creating the federal court system, Congress divided the nation into 94 federal judicial districts, including at least one district in each state, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. The U.S. territories of the Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands have district courts that hear federal cases. One United States Attorney is assigned to each of the judicial districts, with the exception of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands where a single United States Attorney serves in both districts. Each U.S. Attorney is the chief federal law enforcement officer of the United States within his or her particular local jurisdiction.

Map of the 94 United States federal judicial districts
The United States federal judicial districts. US Government / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

All U.S. Attorneys are required to live in the district to which they are appointed, except that in the District of Columbia and the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York, they may live within 20 miles of their district.

Brief History of the United States Attorneys

The Judiciary Act of 1789 created the Office of the United States Attorney, the office of Attorney General, and the United States Marshals Service. Though they were soon reorganized by the controversial Judiciary Act of 1801, the structure of the U.S. Supreme Court, along with the balance of the U.S. federal court system, were also defined by the Judiciary Act of 1789. Thus, the creation of the Office of the U.S. Attorney actually came 81 years before the creation of the U.S. Department of Justice on July 1, 1870.

The Judiciary Act of 1789, provided for the appointment 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...” Until the creation of the Department of Justice and the office of Attorney General in 1870, the U.S. Attorneys operated independently and largely unsupervised. 

Salaries of the U.S. Attorneys 

Salaries of U.S. Attorneys are currently set by the Attorney General. Depending on their experience, U.S. Attorneys can make up to $150,000 a year. Details on the current salaries and benefits of U.S. Attorneys can be found on the Web site of the Department of Justice's Office of Attorney Recruitment and Management.

Until 1896, U.S. Attorneys were paid on a fee system based on the cases they prosecuted. For attorneys serving coastal districts, where the courts were filled with maritime cases dealing with seizures and forfeitures involving expensive shipping cargo, those fees could amount to quite a substantial sum. According to the Justice Department, One U.S. Attorney in a coastal district reportedly received an annual income of $100,000 as early as 1804.

When the Justice Department began regulating the salaries of the U.S. Attorneys in 1896, they ranged from $2,500 to $5,000. Until 1953, the U.S. Attorneys were allowed to supplement their incomes by retaining their private practice while holding office. 

What the U.S. Attorneys Do

The U.S. Attorneys represent the federal government, and thus the American people, in any trial in which the United States is a party. Under Title 28, Section 547 of the United States Code, the U.S. Attorneys have three main responsibilities:

  • prosecution of criminal cases brought by the federal government;
  • prosecution and defense of civil cases in which the United States is a party; and
  • collection of money owed to the government which cannot be collected administratively.

Criminal prosecution conducted by U.S. Attorneys includes cases involving violations of the federal criminal laws, including organized crime, drug trafficking, political corruption, tax evasion, fraud, bank robbery, and civil rights offenses. On the civil side, U.S. Attorneys spend most of their courtroom time defending government agencies against claims and enforcing social legislation such as environmental quality and fair housing laws.

When representing the United States in court, the U.S. Attorneys are expected to represent and implement the policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

While they receive direction and policy advice from the Attorney General and other Justice Department officials, the U.S. Attorneys are allowed a large degree of independence and discretion in choosing which cases they prosecute.

Prior to the Civil War, the U.S. Attorneys were allowed to prosecute those crimes specifically mentioned in the Constitution, namely, piracy, counterfeiting, treason, felonies committed on the high seas, or cases resulting from interference with federal justice, extortion by federal officers, thefts by employees from the United States Bank, and arson of federal vessels at sea

How U.S. Attorneys are Appointed

U.S. Attorneys are appointed by the President of the United States for four-year terms. Their appointments must be confirmed by a majority vote of the U.S. Senate.

By law, U.S. Attorneys are subject to removal from their posts by the President of the United States.

While most U.S. Attorneys serve full four-year terms, usually corresponding to the terms of the president who appointed them, mid-term vacancies do occur.

Each U.S. Attorney is allowed to hire -- and fire -- Assistant U.S. Attorneys as needed to meet the case load generated in their local jurisdictions. U.S. Attorneys are allowed wide authority in controlling the personnel management, financial management, and procurement functions of their local offices.

Prior to enactment of the Patriot Act Reauthorization Bill of 2005, on March 9, 2006, mid-term replacement U.S. Attorneys were appointed by the Attorney General to serve for 120 days, or until a permanent replacement appointed by the president could be confirmed by the Senate.

A provision of the Patriot Act Reauthorization Bill removed the 120-day limit on the terms of interim U.S. Attorneys, effectively extending their terms to the end of the president's term and bypassing the U.S. Senate's confirmation process. The change effectively extended to the president the already controversial power of making ​recess appointments in installing U.S. Attorneys.

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Longley, Robert. "About the United States Attorneys." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/the-united-states-attorneys-3322420. Longley, Robert. (2021, February 16). About the United States Attorneys. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-united-states-attorneys-3322420 Longley, Robert. "About the United States Attorneys." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-united-states-attorneys-3322420 (accessed June 9, 2023).