Guest Essayist: The Honorable Ken Paxton


State Attorneys General (AG) serve as the chief lawyers for their respective states and work to defend state sovereignty in a variety of contexts. They represent the interests of their states in court proceedings by defending state laws against legal challenges and, in many cases, enforcing state laws in both civil and criminal actions.  They frequently are called upon to provide legal advice to state officials and to issue legal opinions on a range of issues.  They also may oversee critical government programs, such as (in Texas) the state’s child support function.

While similar to their federal counterpart—the U.S. Attorney General—these state officers perform functions that vary greatly from the federal context, specifically in three ways.

First, the state AG is a constitutional officer of a sovereign state.  The U.S. Constitution recognizes the independent states’ sovereignty[1] and limits the duties of the federal government while reserving the remaining power to the states.[2]  Unlike the U.S. Attorney General, the majority of state AGs are constitutional officers: the AG is an elected executive officer in 43 states with the remaining states appointing the position.[3]

Texas is unique because it was a sovereign nation before joining the union. Between 1836 and 1846, the President of the Republic of Texas appointed the AG to serve a two-year term. Texas joined the Union as the 28th state on December 29, 1845, and, in 1850, the Texas Constitution was amended to provide for the election of the AG.

Second, state AGs swear an oath to uphold and defend the laws of their state in addition to the U.S. Constitution.[4]  By contrast, the U.S. Attorney General is only charged with upholding and defending the U.S. Constitution and federal law.

This role for the state AG is appropriate:  it supports the sovereignty of the state and the Constitution’s federalism, which allows states to hold the federal government accountable. The states, and their officers, were meant to be safeguards of a limited federal Constitution, not the front-line champions of federal power.[5]

Texas requires[6] the AG to protect the state’s interest broadly to defend state sovereignty. [7]   Between 2010 and 2016, the Texas AG sued the federal government 48 times for exceeding its authority on issues ranging from environmental protection regulations to the Affordable Care Act.[8] These lawsuits are important to preserve state rights and stand as a bulwark against unconstitutional federal encroachment.

Third, the role of state AGs is broader than the U.S. Attorney General because, as state officers, they must advise, protect, and enforce the laws of each of their states. Many state AGs serve as the chief legal advisor and chief law enforcement officer for their state.

In Texas, the AG issues legal opinions on a variety of topics and defends state agencies in litigation. The AG litigates antitrust and environmental violations and prosecutes human traffickers and child abusers. Texas has been a national leader in bringing cases defending states’ rights and continues to be at the forefront of litigation to restrain the federal government to its enumerated powers.

In summary, state AGs have complex roles, which differ from the U.S. Attorney General, primarily because of the powers rightly reserved to the states under the Constitution and the innumerable ways in which each state wields that responsibility.

Ken Paxton is the 51st Attorney General of Texas. Attorney General Paxton is focused on protecting Texans and upholding Texas laws and the Constitution.

Fighting federal overreach, he filed 22 lawsuits against the Obama administration during a two-year stretch, of which six cases were heard in the U.S. Supreme Court. Most recently, a U.S. District Court agreed with his 20-state coalition lawsuit holding Obamacare unconstitutional. Attorney General Paxton obtained an injunction or other winning ruling in over 75 percent of the cases he has brought against the federal government.  

Attorney General Paxton has won major cases for Texas on immigration, school rights, voter ID, sanctuary cities, redistricting, EPA rules and religious freedom. He created a human trafficking unit in his office that helped shut down, the largest online sex-trafficking marketplace in the United States. Attorney General Paxton’s office has also obtained a record number of successful election fraud convictions.

Prior to becoming attorney general in January 2015, he served as a state Senator and a member of the Texas House of Representatives. A graduate of Baylor University, Attorney General Paxton earned his law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law.

 A special thanks to Lesley French, Assistant Attorney General, for assistance in researching and drafting the essay.

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[1] See, e.g., U.S. CONST. amend. X; id. art. I, § 10, cl. 1 (“No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or

Confederation . . . .”); id. art. I, § 10, cl. 2 (“No State shall, without the Consent of the Congress, lay any Imposts or Duties on Imports or Exports . . . .”). A few constitutional provisions are exceptional. See id. art. I, § 4, cl. 1 (instructing states to prescribe the time, place, and manner of elections for senators and representatives); id. art. II, § 1, cl. 2 (empowering states to decide the manner in which presidential electors are selected).

[2] THE FEDERALIST NO. 46 (James Madison).

[3] Maine’s state legislature appoints the attorney general and the Tennessee Supreme Court appoints the attorney general.

[4] See, e.g., CAL. CONST. art. 20, § 3 (“I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that

I will well and faithfully discharge the duties upon which I am about to enter.”); N.Y. CONST. art. 13, § 1 (“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the constitution of the United States, and the constitution of the State of New York, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of [attorney general], according to the best of my ability . . . .”); TEX. CONST. art. 16, § 1(a) (“I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm), that I will faithfully execute the duties of the office of [attorney general] of the State of Texas, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States and of this State, so help me God.”); VA. CONST. art. II, § 7 (“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge all the

duties incumbent upon me as [attorney general], according to the best of my ability (so help me God).”); 15 ILL. COMP. STAT. ANN. § 205/1 (West 1990) (“I do solemnly swear (or affirm, as the case may be), that I will support the constitution of the United States and the constitution of the state of Illinois, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of attorney general, according to the best of my ability.”).

[5] THE FEDERALIST NO. 46 (James Madison) (discussing the ability of states to check claims of federal authority).

[6] Tex. Const.  art. IV, § 22.

[7] Id. Those powers generally include but are not limited to:  (1) bringing suit on behalf of the state or a governmental entity, i.e. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 125.070; (2) seeking injunctive relief; (3) recovering civil penalties; (4) defending agencies and state officials, i.e., Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code §§ 101.103, 104.004; Tex. Gov’t Code § 74.141 (defend state district court judges) (5) investigatory i.e. Tex. Bus. & Comm. Code § 15.10 (may issue civil investigatory in monopoly/anti-trust cases); (5) enforcement of specific statutes i.e. Tex. Bus. & Comm. Code § 17.47 (may enforce the DTPA), Tex. Hum. Res. Code §§ 36.051-.053 (investigate, seek penalty and injunction for Medicaid Fraud); (6) seeking mandamus against certain entities, i.e. Tex. Election Code § 123.065; Tex. Gov’t Code § 552.321 (compel gov’t entity to make information public), (7) assist in prosecutions, i.e. Tex. Gov’t Code § 41.102; and (8) approving bonds issued by state and local governmental entities as well as various utility districts and institutions of higher education, Tex. Gov’t Code Ch. 1202; Staples v. State, 245 S.W. 639 (Tex.  1922); Agey v. Am. Liberty Pipeline Co., 172 S.W.2d 972 (1943) (“The Attorney General is the chief law officer of the State, and it is incumbent upon him to institute in the proper courts proceedings to enforce or protect any right of the public that is violated.  He has the right to investigate the facts and exercise his judgment and discretion regarding the filing of a suit.” (internal citations omitted)).

[8] Neena Satija et. al., Texas v. the Feds – A Look at the Lawsuits, Texas Tribune (Jan.17, 2017); available at: