What is a State Attorney?

Deborah Walker

A state attorney or state's attorney is a lawyer who is either elected by the voters or appointed by a higher government authority to represent the government in prosecuting criminal defendants in a given geographical area. Within that jurisdiction, the state attorney is the highest ranking law enforcement officer and is responsible for prosecuting all criminal cases. In most jurisdictions, the state attorney's office generally has several different departments, each handling a different type of crime. The state attorney ordinarily supervises a staff of assistant state's attorneys and support personnel. A state attorney, sometimes called a district attorney depending upon the jurisdiction, usually reports to the chief state's attorney or an equivalent higher official, and must have the appropriate education, licensing, and experience.

State attorneys are elected or appointed.
State attorneys are elected or appointed.

The state attorney represents the interests of the state — i.e., the people — in all criminal court proceedings within his or her jurisdiction. In this way, the state attorney represents the actual victims and potential victims of crime. The state attorney may be responsible for negotiating plea bargains, representing the state at trial, and handling pre-trial discovery and post-trial appeals. During discovery, the prosecution and the defense are required to show the opposing side all evidence in their possession that pertains to the case. This may include taking depositions, completing interrogatories, or entering evidentiary motions in court.

To streamline the process of prosecuting criminal cases, the state attorney's office may be divided into departments that handle specific types of crimes. Departments or separate units may be dedicated to homicide cases, domestic violence, and various misdemeanors, felonies, and crimes committed by gangs. The state attorney may also have a separate unit to handle criminal appeals, i.e., cases that go to a higher court after trial. A state attorney's job is typically different from the job of a state attorney general depending upon the jurisdiction. The attorney general's office often represents the state in civil litigation only.

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To become a state attorney, one must generally earn a bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university and then attend and graduate law school. The next step after completing law school studies is passing a licensing exam for the jurisdiction in which the graduate wants to practice law. The licensing exam, often called a bar exam, is a comprehensive test to determine a law school graduate's knowledge of the law, and usually take several days. The exam typically consists of both essay and multiple-choice questions. The usual career path is for the newly licensed attorney to apply for a position in the state attorney's office and gain extensive experience in prosecuting criminal cases before becoming eligible for supervisory responsibilities.

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