While most people might be able to identify their state's governor, they would probably have more difficulty naming their state attorney general. However, a new study suggests that when it comes to protecting consumers, the state attorney general is by far the more important, if least appreciated, public official.
The study, by the Center for Justice & Democracy, finds that state attorneys general often target corrupt and harmful business practices on behalf of consumers, taking action on behalf of citizens in many diverse areas, including consumer protection, antitrust and utility regulation, and environmental protection.
Perhaps as a result of that activity, the report finds, attorneys general are often the targets of unfair attacks by political opponents and business interests.
"We tend to take for granted the important and sometimes understated work of state attorneys general, many of whom toil away in unglamorous offices as they fight for the public interest," said Center for Justice & Democracy Executive Director, Joanne Doroshow.
Doroshow suggests corporate interests threatened by an active attorney general are increasingly attacking the states' use of outside counsel, because these private lawyers have proved effective in helping states reach huge settlements on behalf of their citizens.
"If these business groups are successful and prevent AGs from doing their job, the difference could means hundreds of millions of lost reimbursements for states due to corporate wrongdoing, not to mention countless lives," she said.
The study cites state tobacco litigation as a watershed case for attorneys general across the nation. In partnership with private attorneys, the state officials were not only able to force the industry to reimburse state funds expended to deal with one of the biggest public health disasters in modern times, the report notes they were also able to expose the industry's corrupt practices.
According to Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, "Never before [this lawsuit] has any tobacco company or member of the industry acknowledged that cigarettes cause cancer, nicotine is addictive and the industry targets its marketing to children and suppresses its own knowledge about how harmful its products are."
"It is precisely this check on industry that so angers corporate interests," write report authors Emily Gottlieb and Amy Widman. "When attorneys general and private attorneys join together, the power of the state is made stronger by the additional resources, manpower and strategic advice provided by private counsel.
"It increases their access to documents so the state can investigate exactly what was happening behind corporate doors. Also, because the state is involved, it can provide more whistleblower protection to insiders willing to speak the truth about industry misconduct," she added.