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A Brief History

More than 200 years ago, Congress enacted the Judiciary Act of 1789, directing the President of the United States to appoint in each federal district "a meet person learned in the law to act as an attorney for the United States."  This person - the United States Attorney - was "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."

Soon after the passage of the Judiciary Act, President George Washington appointed 13 distinguished men to fill these new posts in the newly created federal judicial districts.  Writing to the first United States Attorney for the District of New York, Washington noted that "[t]he 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."

In 1820, the President was given authority to designate a Treasury official to oversee the activities of the United States Attorneys.  The Congress created the position of the Solicitor of the Treasury in 1830 and empowered him to have control over all United States Attorneys.  In 1861, the United States Attorneys began to work under the direction of the Attorney General of the United States.  The Attorney General's full supervisory authority was cemented in 1870 with the creation of the United States Department of Justice.
Before the Civil War, the United States Attorneys prosecuted only those offenses specified in the Constitution, such as piracy, counterfeiting and treason.  Congress has since added many federal offenses by statute.

Today, there are 94 federal districts served by 93 United States Attorneys.  Two Presidents of the United States have served as United States Attorney: Andrew Jackson was the first United States Attorney for the District of Tennessee and Franklin Pierce served as the United States Attorney for the District of New Hampshire.

Judiciary Act of 1789

Department of Justice Website

28 U.S.C. § 547


Updated February 23, 2015

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