District Attorney. Prosecutor. State’s Attorney. Assistant District Attorney. Defense Attorney. State Attorney General. U.S. Attorney. U.S. Attorney General. 

Do you know the difference between a States Attorney vs District Attorney? Although each of the above titles use similar wording, these terms are not necessarily synonymous with one another. They represent several distinct roles within the criminal justice system. We clarify the differences between each of these roles below:

District Attorney 

Synonyms: DA, Prosecutor, Prosecuting Attorney, State’s Attorney, Commonwealth Attorney 

Job Description: A District Attorney is a public position held by an individual who has been selected to represent the state during criminal justice proceedings. The DA is ultimately responsible for serving justice within the community.  

A District Attorney is elected to office and is responsible for serving as the administrative leader of their office. Contrary to popular belief, the District Attorney does not typically try cases in the courtroom; rather, one of the Assistant District Attorneys represents the DA’s office at trial. While the term “State’s Attorney” does often apply to the position of District Attorney (because this position does, in fact, represent the state during criminal proceedings), do not confuse a State’s Attorney with your state’s Attorney General. We answer a few District Attorney FAQs here. 

Assistant District Attorney 

Synonyms: ADA, Prosecutor, Prosecuting Attorney, Deputy District Attorney  

Job Description: An Assistant District Attorney, or ADA, is the individual you probably think of when picturing a courtroom trial. The ADA is the prosecutor who stands before the courtroom presenting evidence the state has found against the defendant.  

When a criminal case is presented to the DA’s Office, the DA assigns the case to one of the ADAs, who will then compile evidence and manage further case proceedings. Oftentimes, cases do not go to trial. Instead, they result in plea deals, which the ADA arranges with the Defense Attorney. An Assistant District Attorney has an obligation to protect the rights of the innocent and convict the guilty. They accomplish this by providing evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. 

Defense Attorney 

Synonyms: Public Defender, Defense Lawyer, Defense Counsel, Criminal Defense Attorney, Criminal Trial Lawyer 

Job Description: A Defense Attorney is the defendant’s legal representative in the courtroom and is responsible for protecting the defendant’s rights.  

A Defense Attorney provides legal defense for the accused by guiding clients through the legal process, seeking bail for clients, identifying procedural errors, reviewing evidence, moving to drop charges, negotiating plead deals, and identifying and presenting reasonable doubt during trial. Whether a Defense Attorney presents proof of a defendant’s innocence or simply casts doubt of the defendant’s guilt in the courtroom, a Defense Attorney’s ultimate goal is to prevent a guilty conviction, or, at the very least, minimize the defendant’s sentence.  

State’s Attorney General 

Synonyms: Attorney General, State Attorney General, Attorneys General 

Job Description: Each of the 50 states, as well as the U.S. territories, have an Attorney General serving as chief legal officer to work on criminal, civil, and consumer protection cases.  

These State Attorney Generals work under the leadership of the U.S. Attorney General. According to the National Association of Attorneys General, “the role of an attorney general is to serve as counselor to state government agencies and legislatures, and as a representative of the public interest.” In the event of unethical or illegal misconduct at the district level, the Attorney General’s office steps in to investigate. The State’s Attorney General does not prosecute cases in the courtroom, but rather oversees the District Attorney’s offices throughout each U.S. state and territory. Find your state’s attorney general here: https://www.naag.org/find-my-ag/  

U.S. Attorney 

Synonyms: United States Attorney, USA 

Job Description: Appointed by the President of the United States, U.S. Attorneys prosecute federal crimes, rather than state crimes.  

In addition to prosecuting federal crimes, U.S. Attorneys prosecute and defend civil cases for the United States, as well as collect outstanding debts to the Federal Government. Just as District Attorneys have Assistant District Attorneys who try cases in the courtroom, U.S. Attorneys have Assistant U.S. Attorneys to try cases in federal court. Find your U.S. Attorney here: https://www.justice.gov/usao/find-your-united-states-attorney  

Assistant United States Attorney 

Synonyms: Federal Prosecutor, AUSA, Assistant U.S. Attorney 

Job Description: An Assistant U.S. Attorney represents the federal government by prosecuting federal criminal charges. In federal civil cases, a U.S. Attorney can serve as the prosecutor, or as the defense on behalf of the federal government. The AUSA is appointed to try individual cases at the discretion of the U.S. Attorney in his/her federal court district. 

U.S. Attorney General 

Synonyms: Attorney General, United States Attorney General 

Job Description: The unique role of U.S. Attorney General applies to the individual who has been appointed by the President of the United States and leads the United States Department of Justice.  

The current Attorney General is Merrick Garland, who was sworn-in in March of 2021. Attorney General Garland directs approximately 115,000 United States employees stationed at posts worldwide. Under the leadership of Attorney General Garland, “the Department of Justice is dedicated to upholding the rule of law, keeping our country safe, and protecting the civil rights of all Americans.”