What does the North Carolina Attorney General do?

By Dylan Rhoney

June 3, 2024

As the chief law enforcement official in the state, the NC attorney general can initiate legal action when necessary, represent and defend entities of state government in court, and work with local law enforcement agencies.

This year, North Carolinians will head to the polls to elect a new state attorney general. Incumbent Josh Stein is running for governor. The two candidates to replace Stein are both current members of Congress, Democrat Jeff Jackson and Republican Dan Bishop, both of Charlotte.

While issues such as abortion rights, criminal justice reform, voting rights, and party affiliation will ultimately inform voters’ decisions, many may not know the day-to-day workings of the North Carolina Department of Justice and the role of the attorney general.

Representing public interest in court

One of the key duties of the state Attorney General is to “institute court proceeding on behalf of the State, its agencies or its citizens in any and all public interest matters.” This means the attorney general can go to court to represent the state or the public at large when they feel compelled.

One recent example of this is when Attorney General Stein argued against a Texas federal judge’s ruling that the abortion medication mifepristone was unconstitutional. Stein joined 24 other state attorneys general in defending use of the drug by the public.

“This judge’s decision is wrong on every level, and it takes away safe medical care for women, putting their health at risk. I’m in court fighting for women’s reproductive freedom so women in North Carolina can make decisions about their own bodies,” Stein said at the time.

In an interview with Cardinal & Pine earlier this year, Jackson said he would continue Stein’s approach to reproductive rights issues, fighting to keep abortion medication such as mifepristone available and declining to defend North Carolina’s 12-week abortion ban.

“I think those bills are unconstitutional. I would not defend them,” Jackson said. “I think restricting access in that manner is a violation of both due process and the First Amendment.”

Bishop’s approach to reproductive rights would almost certainly be different, owing to his long record of opposing abortion access.

Bishop praised the US Supreme Court’s 2022 ruling overturning Roe v. Wade and the constitutional right to abortion.

“Every human life is sacred, including the unborn. Thankfully, today’s Supreme Court decision underscores that. This decision is a foundational victory for our nation, allowing us to more perfectly carry out the promises of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness enshrined in the Declaration of Independence,” Bishop’s statement read.

Just weeks later, Bishop voted against two bills protecting abortion rights. One of the bills, the Women’s Health Protection Act of 2022, would have restored the federal right to abortion previously guaranteed under Roe, preventing state and local governments from banning abortions before fetal viability, which is usually around 23 to 24 weeks.

The other bill, the Ensuring Access to Abortion Act of 2022, would have protected the right to travel to get abortion care by prohibiting anyone acting under state law from restricting, prohibiting, or obstructing individuals from crossing state lines to get abortions in states where it’s legal. The bill also would’ve banned retaliation against healthcare providers who provide legal abortion services to out-of-state residents, any person or entity that helps providers offer services, and any person or entity who helps a patient travel to another state for care. It also would have protected the interstate shipment of abortion medication like mifepristone, meaning that patients in any state could have legally and safely acquired and used the medication.

Advising state agencies and officials, defending state laws

Another of the attorney general’s responsibilities is to advise state entities, such as the governor, General Assembly, or other elected officials on legal issues upon request.

In 2012, when the General Assembly passed their voter ID law and faced a lawsuit from the Obama administration, then-Attorney General Roy Cooper said the law was “one of the worst election pieces of legislation in the country.” Cooper also urged Governor Pat McCrory to veto the bill.

Another role of the North Carolina attorney general is to represent state entities, including departments and agencies, in legal matters. While it is within the attorney general’s duties to defend state laws in court, in some cases, the North Carolina attorneys general has opted not to.

This was the case in 2016 when Cooper declined to defend HB 2, the infamous ‘bathroom bill,’ in court. The bill prevented transgender people from using the restroom that matched their gender identity, and Cooper argued that the bill was unconstitutional.

Stein is currently declining to defend the state’s 12-week abortion ban, which went into effect last year, stating that he believes the law is a violation of the due process and the first amendment for both doctors and patients.

State Senator Phil Berger, the Republican leader of the North Carolina Senate, criticized Stein’s decision in June of last year, saying, “For him, based on his personal preferences, not to do that — I think that’s a failure on his part.”

Working with local law enforcement

While most local district and superior court cases are brought and tried by district attorneys’ offices, there are times where the attorney general works with local police, sheriffs, and district attorneys as needed.

While the attorney general does not have the direct ability to prosecute local cases, they can do so if requested by the local prosecutor.

Stein recently held a press conference with local law enforcement leaders where he advocated for funding for a “fentanyl control unit” so that his office could assist district attorneys in prosecutions for fentanyl and trafficking related crimes.

“I am advocating for more prosecutors for a Fentanyl Control Unit so that my office can help local district attorneys prosecute these complex and often cross-jurisdictional cases,” Stein said.

Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead said that the support of the attorney general was crucial on this issue.

“With the support of AG Stein, along with our federal and local partnerships, we can continue this life saving work,” he said.

Author

  • Dylan Rhoney

    Dylan Rhoney is an App State grad from Morganton who is passionate about travel, politics, history, and all things North Carolina. He lives in Raleigh.

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