Please, No “General Attorney General”

In today’s Supreme Court oral arguments over Texas SB8 anti-abortion law, I think Solicitor General Prelogar was great.

But can we please call her “Solicitor General Prelogar” or “SG Prelogar” and not “General Prelogar”? I’ve seen much commentary today using the term “General” in this way. Calling AGs or SGs “General” was likely a mid 20thC drift toward the militarization of domestic law enforcement

See Michael Herz, “Washington, Patton, Schwarzkopf and…Ashcroft?” 19 Constitutional Commentary 661 (2002). “The practice of calling the AG & the SG ‘General’ should be abandoned… flatly incorrect by the standards of history, grammar, lexicology, and protocol.”

“The misuse of ‘general’ predates the recent uptitling epidemic, and the term is more than simply grandiose. There is no escaping its military connotations. Almost all generals are found in the Army (or Air Force, or Marines). Most people are slightly confused the first time they hear the AG or SG referred to as “General” precisely because the term’s primary meaning and its primary association are military. My guess is that the misuse of “general” is not only confusing for this reason, but attractive.
This cannot be proven, of course. But the military feel of
the term is so strong that it is hard to believe that its appeal is
independent of that feel. People are reassured, or impressed, by
having a general around. The adversary system, litigation “battles,” the common understanding of litigation as a kind of warfare, all these make the idea of putting a general in charge comfortable.
This impulse might be all the stronger since the September
11 attacks and the start of a “war on terrorism” in which the Department of Justice is a central player. In fact, President Bush
has half-jokingly referred to Ashcroft as a military general on
more than one occasion since September 11.”

“To call civil officials “general” because that word appears in
their title is incorrect by the standards of grammar, history, and
protocol. It is also a little silly. And it is at odds with important
values… [S]tick with attorneys and solicitors in the Department of Justice, and
leave the generals in the army.”

Garrett Epps notes today, “In 1971 I wrote a profile of Archibald Cox that said that his military bearing and commanding air led his colleagues to call him ‘the general.’ Later I found out it was because he’d been Solicitor General.”

Author: Jed Shugerman

Legal historian at Fordham Law School, teaching Torts, Administrative Law, and Constitutional History. JD/PhD in History, Yale. Red Sox and Celtics fan, youth soccer coach. Author of "The People's Courts: Pursuing Judicial Independence in America" (2012) on the rise of judicial elections in America. I filed an amicus brief in the Emoluments litigation against Trump along with a great team of historians. I'm working on "The Rise of the Prosecutor Politicians," a history of prosecutors and political ambition (a cause of mass incarceration), and "The Imaginary Unitary Executive," on the myths and history of presidential power in America.

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