Early years of the office (1704-1946)
The position of New Jersey Attorney General was first established in 1704, shortly after the provinces of East Jersey and West Jersey were reunited as a single colony. The royal governor, Lord Cornbury, appointed Alexander Griffith to serve as the first Attorney General, a position he held until 1714. Six additional men held the role while the colony was under British rule.
In 1776, New Jersey declared its independence and adopted its first state constitution. William Paterson was appointed the first Attorney General of the newly created state. Over the next century, a number of prominent New Jersey residents held the position, including Frederick Theodore Frelinghuysen, who later served as U.S. Secretary of State, and William L. Dayton, who served as U.S. Ambassador to France during the Civil War.
During first half of the twentieth century, New Jersey established a number of independent agencies that would later fall under the Attorney General’s purview. In 1921, for example, the state created the New Jersey State Police, an independent Department under the supervision of its first Superintendent, H. Norman Schwarzkopf. In 1944, the state created the Department of Law, which assisted the Attorney General in providing legal advice to the Governor and state agencies.
The modern era (1947-present)
In 1947, New Jersey ratified a new constitution that overhauled the state’s judicial and executive functions. The following year, Governor Alfred Driscoll signed the Law and Public Safety Act of 1948, N.J.S.A. 52:17B-1, et seq., which created a new cabinet-level agency – the Department of Law & Public Safety, headed by the Attorney General – and placed several agencies under its supervision, including the New Jersey State Police and the Department of Law (renamed the “Division of Law”). The 1948 Act also gave the Attorney General authority over divisions regulating alcoholic beverages, motor vehicles, professional boards, and weights & measures.
In the second half of the twentieth century, the state expanded the responsibilities of the Department of Law & Public Safety, both by establishing new divisions and transferring existing ones from other Departments. These changes significantly altered the role of the Attorney General, particularly in the areas of civil rights, criminal prosecution, and consumer protection.
- Division on Civil Rights. In 1963, the Attorney General assumed responsibility for the enforcement of the state’s civil rights laws. The Division on Civil Rights (DCR) – which previously had been housed in the Department of Education as the “Division Against Discrimination” – was transferred into the Department of Law & Public Safety. SeeJ.S.A. 10:5-1; Hifney v. Matawan Regional Bd. of Ed., 77 N.J. 514, 521-23 (1978). Through DCR, the Attorney General was tasked with enforcing the Law Against Discrimination, considered one of the strongest anti-discrimination laws in the country.
- Division of Criminal Justice. Seven years later, in 1970, the state expanded the Attorney General’s criminal jurisdiction with the passage of the Criminal Justice Act of 1970, N.J.S.A. 52:17B-97, et seq., which created the Division of Criminal Justice and formally recognized the Attorney General as the state’s chief law enforcement officer. The 1970 Act also granted the Attorney General the authority to issue statements of statewide policy – known as “law enforcement directives” – binding on all state, county, and local law enforcement officers in New Jersey.
- Division of Consumer Affairs. The following year, in 1971, the state established the Division of Consumer Affairs within the Department of Law & Public Safety, consolidating several entities into a single office. N.J.S.A. 52:17B-118, et seq. The Division included the Office of Consumer Protection – tasked with enforcing the Consumer Fraud Act, one of the country’s strongest consumer protection laws – as well as offices regulating professional boards and weights & measures.
During this same period, the Department of Law & Public Safety assumed responsibility for a number of other offices, including oversight of the New Jersey Racing Commission (1970), the Division of Gaming Enforcement (1977), and the State Athletic Control Board (1985). In 1990s, the Legislature created two new entities within the Department, establishing the Juvenile Justice Commission in 1995 to oversee the state’s juvenile justice system, N.J.S.A. 52:17B-118, et seq., and the Office of the Insurance Fraud Prosecution in 1998 to investigate and prosecute insurance fraud, N.J.S.A. 17:33A-17. In 2018, the Attorney General established the Office of Public Integrity & Accountability to investigate public corruption and other abuses of public trust.
In the modern era, the Department embraced the diversity of its employees. In 1994, Deborah T. Poritz was appointed as New Jersey’s 50th attorney general, the first woman to hold the position. In 2003, Peter C. Harvey was appointed as the state’s first African American attorney general. In 2018, Gurbir S. Grewal became the first South Asian to hold the position and first Sikh American attorney general in the country.
Today, the Department of Law & Public Safety employs more than 7,700 public servants, including 2,800 uniformed officers and 600 lawyers. The New Jersey Attorney General remains one of only seven state attorneys general that is not popularly elected, and one of only five state attorneys general that is appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state senate.