In the role of district attorney, you assume one of the most prominent faces in the criminal justice system. If you become one, you likely will get the moniker of “chief law enforcement officer” in your locality or region.
If you meet the legal requirements for district attorney, you will earn the opportunity to combat domestic violence, illicit drug trades, corrupt organizations, and violent crimes. With juveniles as well as adults as defendants, district attorneys can turn youthful offenders away from a life of crime.
In most jurisdictions, winning election is one of the state-level district attorney requirements. The qualifications to run for district attorney involve political considerations as well as legal qualifications. In your campaign, voters will have the opportunity to evaluate your prosecutorial leadership skills, performance and competence in the legal profession, and commitment to improving the criminal justice system.
A successful district attorney election takes an understanding of the responsibilities of a district attorney, district attorney election regulations, district attorney qualifications, and the ability to connect with the public, courts, others in the criminal justice system, and colleagues in the legal profession.
To help you in your career as a prosecutor, we describe the roles of a district attorney, the typical district attorney requirements, and how to run for district attorney. These district attorney campaign resources stand to help you from filing through election day.
If your interests involve federal crimes, you may consider service as an attorney in a U.S. Attorney's Office. Unlike a state-level district attorney, a U.S. Attorney does not have to contend with a district attorney election. Instead, the President of the United States appoints attorneys to the office. The United States Senate confirms the nominations.
U.S. Attorneys serve particular federal districts and appear in the federal district courts where their offices are located. As with a state-level district attorney, a U.S. Attorney prosecutes criminals. Federal prosecutors investigate and seek to convict those engaged in acts such as bankruptcy fraud, securities fraud, interstate drug trafficking, violations of federal firearms charges, bribery by federal officials, acts of terrorism, and bank fraud.
Unlike the roles of a district attorney in a state-level DA's office, a U.S. Attorney's Office also handles civil cases on behalf of the government. As an Assistant U.S. Attorney, you pursue civil rights suits such as Title VII employment discrimination for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and voting rights violations. You also represent the federal government in Social Security disability appeals in federal district courts and lawsuits against the government under the Federal Tort Claims Act.
Many DA's offices might have assistants who concentrate on particular types of crimes, such as sex crimes, white-collar crimes, domestic violence, drug cases, and homicides. Your prosecutorial leadership functions may include having prosecutors in specialized courts such as drug treatment or truancy.
Many offices hire victim or witness coordinators or assistants to gather information for damages resulting from crimes. With this evidence, prosecutors may seek restitution for crime victims. As a DA, you might employ investigators to gather evidence. Paralegals or administrative assistants often type subpoenas, proposed indictments, applications for search or arrest warrants, and assemble documents to be served upon the defense lawyer.
The role of a district attorney fundamentally involves prosecuting accused criminals. The work of prosecution starts well before you or an assistant appears before a judge or jury. You and your staff investigate, evaluate evidence, and determine if and what to charge. Grand juries hear witnesses and review video and documents presented by prosecutors to return indictments.
When you get to court, you may decide upon plea deals. Here, you must balance the district attorney responsibilities of seeking justice for crime victims with the resources of your office to pursue cases. You and your assistants must skillfully present evidence and convince juries and courts that the prosecution meets the legal qualifications in prosecutions for convicting defendants.
To be sure, a DA often finds time in the courtroom — especially on high-profile cases. The roles of a district attorney also include prosecutorial leadership. This involves supervising assistant and deputy prosecutors on the handling of cases and setting policies for prosecuting and making plea offers on everything from traffic matters to serious felonies. Management of a DA's office's resources may dictate priorities for prosecuting cases. For instance, the DA might opt for deferred prosecutions of first-time offenders in minor crimes.
Beyond litigator, district attorney responsibilities include advising law enforcement officers on investigations and arresting decisions. Prosecutors seek search and arrest warrants for police and sheriff's deputies.
The criminal justice system operates upon fairness to the defendants as well as victims of crime. To that end, you have legal ethics to consider in whether and how to prosecute criminals. For example, prosecutors may not bring charges without a reasonable belief that the evidence supports proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
A district attorney's responsibilities also involve disclosing to the defense evidence that may negate the defendant's guilt. In some cases, you may have to cooperate in overturning a conviction because new circumstances show that a defendant was wrongfully convicted.
To satisfy the state-level district attorney requirements, you must first become a lawyer. You must graduate from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association. Entry into law school requires a bachelor's degree, but there are no legal requirements for district attorney or becoming a lawyer that you pursue any specific major to be accepted to law school. If you choose prosecution, criminal justice or criminology may prove valuable.
The first year of law school includes criminal law. In the following two years, take electives such as criminal procedure, evidence, and constitutional law. Trial advocacy and time in law school afford valuable background in courtroom work.
The legal requirements for admission as an attorney include passing a bar exam and demonstrating your moral fitness to comply with legal ethics and otherwise practice law. To serve in a U.S. Attorney's Office, you need admission by the federal court in the district in which you intend to serve.
The legal requirements for district attorney do not generally carry any specific number of years of prosecutorial experience. However, a successful campaign for district attorney should include demonstrated experience and competence in criminal law. Often those who meet district attorney requirements (both legal requirements) and otherwise) have spent several years as an assistant DA. These cases likely involve high-level felonies. Note that legal ethics require competency in prosecuting particular kinds of cases.
Through the experience, you demonstrate the qualifications to run for district attorney by becoming familiar with the participants in the criminal justice system. These are judges, clerks of court, police officers, highway patrol officers, corrections officials, and others in the legal profession. The support of these persons who observe your skill and dedication can aid your district attorney candidacy. They can endorse your prosecutorial leadership skills and ability to meet the district attorney requirements.
State-level district attorneys usually serve a district composed of either a single county (in highly-populated areas) or a group of counties. Given its small size, Rhode Island relies on its Attorney General to perform the district attorney responsibilities of prosecution and law enforcement.
District attorney election regulations call for you to live in the district in which you seek to serve. The duration of your residency prior to running varies by state. You also need to know whether you meet the legal qualifications for being a resident of the district.
The state-level district attorney requirements for elections vary by state. However, below are some typical legal qualifications and steps to win election.
Your campaign for district attorney starts with filing for office. You complete papers at your state or local board of elections to declare your candidacy for district attorney. With the paperwork, you identify your residence, political affiliation, and your date of admission to the state's bar.
This determines whether you meet the qualifications to run for district attorney, where you can run, and whether you must first win a primary election. In some jurisdictions, candidates with no party affiliation must obtain a minimum number of signatures by qualified voters to start a campaign for district attorney.
Generally, you must pay a filing fee. The amounts vary by jurisdictions. For example, in North Carolina, the filing fee for a state-level district attorney candidate is one percent of the annual salary. Other states may set specific dollar amounts in their state-level district attorney requirements.
Chances are that you will have at least one opponent. Studies suggest that districts without an incumbent typically have contested races. By contrast, incumbents often run unopposed. This hints at the difficulty of unseating the current office holder in many races – especially local ones.
Some states conduct district attorney elections on a non-partisan basis. Such a district attorney election process excludes any involvement of a political party in offering a nominee for the office. Instead, all eligible candidates appear on the general ballot for election day.
In states that conduct partisan elections, the candidates must win a primary election before the general election. The registered voters in each respective party nominate a candidate for the general election.
Depending on your jurisdiction, primaries occur several months before the general election on the first Tuesday in November. Primary (and general election) ballots customarily include other local offices such as sheriff, county commissioners, clerk of courts, and deed registrars.
In local primaries, you likely have to attend local party meetings to garner support of party leaders. While voters ultimately have the say, party leadership may determine the level of support you get in your primary run. If you have primary competition, you potentially face the hurdles of not having connections to the leaders.
Further, a primary contest means you need resources just to qualify for a general election. Should you advance beyond the primary, you'll need to do more fundraising for success in the general election. You might find a disadvantage if your opponent in the other party did not face primary competition.
You may elect to seek office as an independent. This means you do not have to win a primary, and you can focus your energies on one race.
A campaign manager runs the campaign team and supervises your campaign for district attorney. The manager has the role of coordinating your campaign strategy. This includes the message you wish to convey and the distribution of campaign materials such as information sheets, business cards with your name and logo, and pamphlets. Campaigns rely on volunteers to distribute materials at polling places and voters' residences.
With technology, your district attorney campaign team should have skills in using social media and email. Volunteers, family members, and artificial intelligence services can generate the content for digital-age campaigning.
Your staff may include those who can help you navigate district attorney campaign regulations. That involves filing any required disclosures of donors and the amount they contribute to the campaign and of expenditures on staff, advertising, and other items.
Part of your campaign strategy involves whether to participate in debates. You commonly see these in races for president, Senate, Congressional seats, and governor. In such races, the candidates differentiate their policies and past votes on various bills.
In candidate debates, you explain your vision of the role of district attorney, your prosecutorial priorities, and your qualifications such as experience in criminal law, law enforcement, the legal profession, and trying cases. Debates may also focus on decisions such as accepting pleas for less-serious offenses or policies on when and how to insist upon bail for defendants.
Gaining name recognition is a key goal in district attorney campaign strategies. Traditionally, races for state-level district attorney do not gain significant media attention. Many of these and other “down ballot” races involve local offices and local issues.
Campaign contributions fund the printing of campaign literature and airtime on television and radio to get you name recognition. Unless a family member or volunteer can do so, you will likely need to pay a designer for a campaign website. The expenses highlight the need for effective fundraising for a successful district attorney campaign.
Use care that fundraising for campaign expenses does not violate legal ethics or district attorney election regulations. In particular, the media and others raised questions over a 2017 incumbent in New York receiving donations from law firms and lawyers whose clients that DA's office was investigating or prosecuting. This raised the appearance or at least allegation that donors' clients received favorable plea deals or were not prosecuted at all.
While fundraising allows you to meet advertising, travel, and other expenses, district attorney campaign strategies should include appearances at festivals, fairs, and other local events.
As a district attorney, you have an important seat in the criminal justice system. You seek to hold abusers, fraud artists, thieves, drunk drivers, and murderers accountable for their crimes. In seeking justice, you may also rectify wrongful convictions and advocate for reforms that might ease unfair burdens on crime victims and defendants.
Party politics and concerns over fundraising do not have to derail your campaign journey. At Good Party, we focus on helping independents navigate the role of district attorney and the district attorney election process. Our candidate resources emphasize digital tools to get your message to voters and help you satisfy all qualifications for district attorney.
Voters want more choices and voices in the political and criminal justice system. Independent candidates for DA like you can fill the gaps often left by the two-party system. Contact and visit us for a free demonstration of our candidate resources or to start your independent candidacy for district attorney.