HISTORY OF THE OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY
The position of United States Attorney was created by the Judiciary Act of 1789, one of the earliest enactments of the first Congress. It provided for a Supreme Court with five associate justices and one chief justice; a district court and a district judge for each of the thirteen states; three circuit courts; and the executive branch offices of Attorney General and United States Attorneys. Each United States Attorney was limited to handling legal matters for the federal government within an individual district, and the Attorney General handled litigation in the Supreme Court.
The Judiciary Act provided for the appointment in each of the thirteen judicial districts 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 ....”
In considering candidates, President George Washington wrote, “The high importance of the judicial system in our national government makes it an indispensable duty to select such characters to fill the several offices in it as would discharge their respective duties in honor to themselves and advantage to their country.”
President Washington commissioned distinguished lawyers in each of the thirteen new federal judicial districts to serve as the first U.S. Attorneys, who were then known as U.S. District Attorneys. Among the esteemed appointees were John Marshall of Virginia, who later served as Chief Justice of the United States.
Prior to 1870, U.S. Attorneys were accountable directly to the President and performed their duties with little oversight. After the Department of Justice was created in 1870, a formal reporting relationship was established between U.S. Attorneys and the Attorney General, empowering the Attorney General to superintend the trial level work of the U.S. Attorneys.
Early U.S. Attorneys were paid on a fee system based upon the number of cases they prosecuted. There was no separate funding for office expenses or employees. That was changed in 1896, when U.S. Attorneys were put on a salary schedule. The annual salaries introduced in 1896 ranged from $2,500 to $5,000. Also in 1896, payment of expenses and appointments of Assistant United States Attorneys were permitted
U.S. Attorneys were allowed to continue in the private practice of law and earn income from private clients while in office until 1953, when the position was designated as a full-time job to eliminate potential conflicts of interest.
Today there are ninety-three U.S. Attorneys who serve in ninety-four federal judicial districts (one U.S. Attorney serves both the District of Guam and the District of the Northern Mariana Islands). United States Attorneys are appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate.
When the position is vacant, the Attorney General may appoint a person to serve as interim U.S. Attorney.
The United States Attorney’s authority is established by Title 28, United States Code, Section 547:
Except as otherwise provided by law, each United States attorney, within his district, shall –
- prosecute for all offenses against the United States;
- prosecute or defend, for the Government, all civil actions, suits or proceedings in which the United States is concerned;
- appear in behalf of the defendants in all civil actions, suits or proceedings pending in his district against collectors, or other officers of the revenue or customs for any act done by them or for the recovery of any money exacted by or paid to these officers, and by them paid into the Treasury;
- institute and prosecute proceedings for the collection of fines, penalties, and forfeitures incurred for violation of any revenue law, unless satisfied on investigation that justice does not require the proceedings; and
- make such reports as the Attorney General may direct.