History of the Office of Attorney General

  • The heritage of the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General is one of the oldest and most divergent offices of public trust in the United States spanning over three centuries of life in the Commonwealth.

    The office is marked by several significant periods in its history:

    1643-1681: Attorneys General before William Penn
    1686-1710: The Era of David Lloyd
    1717-1776: Proprietary Attorneys General
    1776-1838: Early Constitutional Era
    1838-1915: 19th and Early 20th Century Attorneys General
    1915-1981: Modern Attorneys General
    1981-present: Elected Attorneys General

    The position of Attorney General was created in 1643, before the arrival of English Common Law, as an office within government of the area known as New Sweden. Appointees were selected by the King of Sweden.

    The arrival of William Penn in 1681 as the proprietor of Pennsylvania began a continuing succession of notable Attorneys General including David Lloyd (1686-1710), who designed Pennsylvania's first judicial system, and Andrew Hamilton (1717-1726), who defined the early role of the Office by making significant changes from the European systems of justice. (Hamilton later defended printer John Peter Zenger in a case that became the foundation for the concept of freedom of press.)

    The "Proprietary" Attorneys General existed until 1776 when the Attorney General became a constitutional officer of the democratic Commonwealth. John Morris was the first Attorney General appointed under the Constitution.

    The new constitutional office continued to grow in importance until 1840 when it suffered a period of regression. Various Attorneys General and the Governors who appointed them defined the duties of the Office in different and contradictory ways. By the year 1850, through improperly drafted legislation, the Office was stripped of its authority at the county level and was rendered almost powerless in state government.

    It was not until 1915 that the General Assembly established new powers and duties for the Office including the authority to appoint more Deputy Attorneys General. Beginning in 1923, the Administrative Code made the Attorney General the administrator for the Pennsylvania Department of Justice.

    Attorneys General
    At the primary election of 1978, Pennsylvania voters approved a Constitutional amendment providing for the election of an Attorney General effective with the general election of 1980.

    The Constitutional amendment was implemented by the Commonwealth Attorneys Act of 1980 which defined the duties and powers of the Attorney General. The Constitution further provided the Attorney General shall be the chief law enforcement officer of the Commonwealth and shall exercise such powers and perform such duties as may be imposed by law.

    LeRoy S. Zimmerman became the first elected Attorney General. He served two terms from January 1981 through January 1989.

    Ernest D. Preate, Jr. began his first elected term as Attorney General in 1989 and was reelected to a second term in 1992. Mr. Preate resigned from office in June 1995.

    The Pennsylvania Senate confirmed, by a two-thirds vote, the nomination by Governor Tom Ridge of Tom Corbett, to serve as Attorney General. Attorney General Corbett took the oath of office and was sworn in as Pennsylvania Attorney General on October 3, 1995.

    Mike Fisher was sworn in as Attorney General on January 21, 1997 and was re-elected in 2000. Prior to that, Fisher served for 22 years in the state legislature as well as serving as a county prosecutor and private attorney. On December 15, 2003, Fisher resigned as Attorney General in order to take his seat as a judge on the United States Third Circuit Court of Appeals. Upon his resignation, First Deputy Attorney General Gerald J. Pappert became Acting Attorney General.

    Jerry Pappert was sworn-in as Attorney General on February 2, 2004, following his nomination by the Governor and unanimously confirmed by the Pennsylvania Senate. Pappert launched a vigorous fight to lower the cost of prescription drugs for Pennsylvanians, filing a lawsuit in March 2004 against 13 major pharmaceutical drug companies accusing them of an illegal marketing scheme that artificially inflated the cost of their drugs. Pappert also highlighted the growing problem of prescription drug abuse, launching a statewide education campaign and increasing the number of investigators and resources directed at combating the illegal sale and use of powerful prescription medications.

    Tom Corbett returned as Attorney General on January 18, 2005 taking the oath of office as Pennsylvania's 5th elected Attorney General. He dedicated the resources of the office to make the Commonwealth a safer and better place for families to live, work and grow, declaring that "public safety is the single most important service that government can provide." Corbett created the Attorney General's Child Predator Unit to identify and capture Internet predators before they can harm children, as well as to educate kids and parents about online threats. A Public Corruption Unit was formed to investigate and prosecute cases involving public officials and government employees and an Elder Abuse Unit was created to bring together enforcement and educational resources to protect Pennsylvania's large senior population from fraud and abuse.

    Corbett was reelected in 2008 and presided over a sweeping series of grand jury investigation involving public corruption, specifically, the use of state resources and staff for personal or political gain. Those investigations resulted in the arrest of more state officials and state employees than any previous Attorney General in Pennsylvania.

    In November 2010, Tom Corbett was elected Governor of Pennsylvania, the first elected Attorney General in state history to also be elected Governor.

    William H. Ryan, Jr., the First Deputy Attorney General under both Attorneys General Corbett and Pappert, became Acting Attorney General on January 18, 2011, when Tom Corbett took the oath of office as Governor. Ryan provided leadership and stability to the Office of Attorney General during a unique transition period and became the longest-serving Acting Attorney General in modern history, serving through May 27, 2011.

    Linda L. Kelly was nominated by Governor Tom Corbett to succeed him as Attorney General and serve the remainder of his elected term. She was nominated on February 8, 2011; confirmed unanimously by the Pennsylvania Senate on March 23, 2011; and took the oath of office on May 27, 2011. A former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania and former Assistant District Attorney in Allegheny County, Kelly is the first woman to lead the Office of Attorney General since it became an independent elected office in 1981 and is only the second woman to ever serve as Pennsylvania's Attorney General.