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Legal Opinions of the Attorney General - Frequently Asked Questions

As the chief law officer of the state, the California Attorney General provides legal opinions upon request to designated state and local public officials and government agencies on issues arising in the course of their duties. The formal legal opinions of the Attorney General have been accorded "great respect" and "great weight" by the courts.

Legal opinions of the Attorney General may be viewed on this website by clicking on the links under Tools in the right sidebar. Within those links, you may search for opinions by the year published, opinion number, official citation, or key word or phrase from the text of the Opinion's Conclusion.

1. Who may request an Attorney General's opinion?

The Attorney General’s authority to issue opinions is controlled by Government Code section 12519.

Government Code section 12519 states:

“The Attorney General shall give his or her opinion in writing to any Member of the Legislature, the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Controller, Treasurer, State Lands Commission, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Insurance Commissioner, any state agency, and any county counsel, district attorney, or sheriff when requested, upon any question of law relating to their respective offices.

“The Attorney General shall give his or her opinion in writing to a city prosecuting attorney when requested, upon any question of law relating to criminal matters.”

Under this statute, the Attorney General may give opinions only to these specified public officials, and not to private citizens or to public officials who are not listed in the statute.

2. Can I request an Attorney General’s opinion if I am …

…a constitutional officer?

Yes. The Attorney General may provide opinions to the state's constitutional officers, which are the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Controller, Treasurer, State Lands Commissioner, Superintendent of Public Instruction, and Insurance Commissioner. Opinion requests from the office of a constitutional officer must indicate that the question is approved by and made on behalf of the constitutional officer. If the request is made by a deputy or assistant, inquiry will be made to verify that it is authorized by the constitutional officer. When it is completed, the opinion will be issued to the officer, not to the deputy or assistant.

…a state legislator?

Yes. Government Code section 12519 states that the Attorney General may provide an opinion to "any Member of the Legislature." This refers to the State Senate and the State Assembly, but not to local legislative bodies such as city councils or county boards of supervisors. Requests may be made by individual state legislators, but not by legislative committees or consultants.

…a member of a local legislative body?

No. Government Code section 12519 states that the Attorney General may provide an opinion to "any Member of the Legislature." This refers to the State Senate and the State Assembly, but not to local legislative bodies such as city councils or county boards of supervisors.

…an officer at a state agency, department, board, or commission?

Maybe. Government Code section 12519 states that the Attorney General may provide an opinion to "any state agency." The Attorney General interprets this as permitting opinions to be provided to state-level departments, agencies, boards, and commissions. This does not include local agencies, even when the local agency has been organized under state statutes.

An opinion request should indicate that the request is approved by and made on behalf of the principal officer or head of the agency authorized to make the request. If the request is made by a deputy or assistant, inquiry will be made to verify that it is authorized by the principal officer. When it is completed, the opinion will be issued to the principal officer, not to the deputy or assistant.

…the head of a state agency?

Yes. A request by a state agency should indicate that the request is approved by and made on behalf of the head of the state agency. If the request is made by a deputy or assistant, inquiry will be made to verify that it is authorized by the principal officer. When it is completed, the opinion will be issued to the principal officer, not to the deputy or assistant.

…the head of a state department?

Yes. A request by a state department should indicate that the request is approved by and made on behalf of the head of the department. If the department is under the jurisdiction of an umbrella agency, the request should also indicate that the request is authorized by the umbrella agency. If the request is made by a deputy or assistant, inquiry will be made to verify that it is authorized by the principal officer. When it is completed, the opinion will be issued to the principal officer, not to the deputy or assistant.

…a member of a state board or commission?

Maybe. A request by a state board or commission must indicate that the request is authorized by a majority vote of the board or commission. If the request is made by a member of the board’s or commission’s staff, inquiry will be made to verify that it is authorized by a majority vote of the board or commission. If the board or commission is under the jurisdiction of an umbrella agency, the request should also indicate that the request is authorized by the umbrella agency. Requests by individual members of state boards or commissions will be declined.

…a district attorney?

Yes. A request made by a district attorney’s office must indicate that the question is approved by and made on behalf of the District Attorney. If the request is made by a deputy or assistant, inquiry will be made to verify that it is authorized by the District Attorney. When it is completed, the opinion will be issued to the District Attorney, not to the deputy or assistant.

…a county counsel?

Yes. A request made by a county counsel’s office must indicate that the question is approved by and made on behalf of the County Counsel. If the request is made by a deputy or assistant, inquiry will be made to verify that it is authorized by the County Counsel. When it is completed, the opinion will be issued to the County Counsel, not to the deputy or assistant.

…a sheriff?

Yes. A request made by a sheriff’s office must indicate that the question is approved by and made on behalf of the Sheriff. If the request is made by a deputy or assistant, inquiry will be made to verify that it is authorized by the Sheriff. When it is completed, the opinion will be issued to the Sheriff, not to the deputy or agent.

…a city attorney?

Maybe. Government Code section 12519 states that opinions shall be provided to "a city prosecuting attorney when requested, upon any question of law relating to criminal matters." This means that an opinion may be given to a city attorney who actually prosecutes misdemeanor cases arising in the city. Opinions will not be given to city attorneys who do not prosecute criminal cases. Whether or not a city attorney prosecutes criminal cases, an opinion will not be given to a city attorney on a question of civil law.
A request made by a city attorney’s office must indicate that the question is approved by and made on behalf of the City Attorney. If the request is made by a deputy or assistant, inquiry will be made to verify that it is authorized by the City Attorney. When it is completed, the opinion will be issued to the City Attorney, not to the deputy or assistant.

…a judge?

Maybe. The California Supreme Court and Court of Appeal are state agencies authorized to request opinions. Requests should come from the chief justice or a presiding justice of the court or, as is usually the case, be submitted by the Administrative Office of the Courts.

3. How can I get a legal opinion if I am a local official or an employee of a local agency?

The Attorney General is not permitted to give opinions to local public officials or employees.

If you want to submit a general question to the Attorney General’s Office, you should contact our Public Inquiry Unit, which frequently helps public employees and officials find assistance and information on a wide variety of issues. See the Attorney General’s Public Inquiry Unit.

If you are an employee of a local agency, you can try contacting the head of your agency, or the counsel for your agency.

If you are a public official for a city, you can try contacting the City Attorney’s office.

If you are a public official for a county, you can try contacting the County Counsel’s office or the District Attorney’s office.

If your question concerns open-meeting rules or conflict-of-interest rules, you may be able to find the answer to your question in one of the handbooks available on our website.

4. How can I get a legal opinion if I am a member of the public?

The Attorney General is not permitted to give legal opinions to members of the public.

If you want to submit a general question to the Attorney General’s Office, you should contact our Public Inquiry Unit, which is set up to help you get assistance and information on a wide variety of issues. Please see the Attorney General’s Public Inquiry Unit.

If you want to find out what the law is on a particular subject, you can try to research the question yourself. California laws are available on the internet at, http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/calaw.html and United States laws are available on the internet at http://uscode.house.gov/search/criteria.shtml. You may also wish to visit your local law library. You can locate your nearest public law library at http://www.publiclawlibrary.org. If you are unable to find a law on your own, then we suggest that you consult with a private attorney. Our office cannot provide legal advice, analysis, or research to anyone other than state officers and agencies.

If your question concerns open-meeting rules or conflict-of-interest rules, you may be able to find the answer to your question in one of the handbooks available on our website.

If you want help handling a legal problem for yourself, two good places to start are the California Courts website, and the California State Bar Association website.

If you need legal advice, you should contact a private attorney. The Attorney General’s Office is not permitted to give legal opinions or advice to members of the public. Please visit the State Bar Lawyer Referral Service.

If you want a copy of an Attorney General’s Opinion that has already been published, you can write, email, or call the Opinion Unit at the following address:

Office of the Attorney General
Opinion Unit, Dept. of Justice
Attn: Stephanie Grimes
P.O. Box 944255
Sacramento, CA 94244
(916)324-5172
Stephanie.Grimes@doj.ca.gov

5. What kinds of questions will the Attorney General give opinions on?

Government Code section 12519 states that opinions will be provided on "questions of law." Requests that require factual investigations or that would require the resolution of a factual despite are declined. Requests for advice, or for policy determinations, are also declined.

For policy reasons, the Attorney General also declines to give opinions on legal questions under special circumstances. The limitations include:

Conflicts of Interest under the Political Reform Act. The Attorney General normally recommends that questions concerning conflicts of interest arising under the Political Reform Act of 1974 (California Government Code §§ 81000-91015) be directed to the Fair Political Practices Commission, which administers the act. A public official may rely on the Commission's opinion as a defense in enforcement actions regarding the requirements of the Political Reform Act.

Local Laws. The Attorney General declines opinion requests calling for interpretation of local charters, ordinances, resolutions, regulations, or rules. Responsibility for interpreting and enforcing those laws rests with the local agency’s counsel.

Pending Legislation. The Attorney General declines opinion requests regarding the validity or interpretation of proposed legislation. Providing opinions on pending bills rests with the Office of Legislative Counsel.

Pending Litigation. The Attorney General declines opinion requests that involve legal issues that are pending in a judicial or administrative proceeding. Issuing an opinion on a question that is at issue in litigation might be perceived as an attempt to influence the litigation. When the Attorney General's Opinion Unit becomes aware that a question raised in an existing request has become the subject of litigation, the assignment to prepare the opinion is cancelled.

Questions Posed on Behalf of Others. Government Code section 12519, which controls the Attorney General’s authority to give advisory opinions, states that an opinion may be given to designated officials “upon any question of law relating to their respective offices.” This means that a designated official may not request an opinion posed by someone else on a question unrelated to the office. It is usually clear from the question what the connection to the requester’s office is. When it is not clear, inquiry will be made to ascertain the connection. When it is apparent that there is no connection, the request will be declined.

Conflict of Interest. Occasionally, the Attorney General declines a request because it presents a conflict of interest with respect to other legal matters that the Attorney General’s Office may be involved in.

6. What is the process for requesting an opinion?

Eligible public officials should submit their legal questions in writing to:

Susan Duncan Lee, Supervising Deputy Attorney General
Opinion Unit
Attorney General’s Office
455 Golden Gate Ave., Suite 11000
San Francisco, CA 94102
Susan.Lee@doj.ca.gov

An opinion request should be signed by the public official, principal officer, or head of the agency authorized to make the request. If the request is made by a deputy or assistant, inquiry will be made to verify that it was authorized by the principal and the opinion will issue to the principal, not to the deputy or assistant.

If a request is made by a state department, board, or commission that is under the jurisdiction of an umbrella agency, the request should also indicate that the request is authorized by the umbrella agency.

Any request that is made by a department or officer that employs legal counsel must be accompanied by a legal analysis prepared by the department or officer’s legal counsel. Requests from a Sheriff must be accompanied by the legal analysis of the District Attorney or County Counsel.

7. What should I include in my request for an Attorney General’s Opinion?

An opinion request should be made in writing, and should set out the question to be answered as clearly as possible. After a request for an opinion has been accepted, the Deputy Attorney General who has been assigned to prepare the opinion will often contact the requester to discuss whether further revisions to the question are desirable.

An opinion request should also include enough description of the background and context of the question to allow a precise legal analysis to be prepared. This may take any form that is convenient to the requester, including copies of documents, reports, correspondence, legal analyses, or other information to illustrate the problem. In submitting such materials, the requester should bear in mind that requests for Attorney General’s opinions are public documents and may be disclosed to third parties under the Public Records Act.

Whether or not background materials are included with the written request, the requester will often be contacted for more particulars of the problem. However, the Attorney General’s Opinion Unit will not undertake factual investigations or resolve factual disputes in connection with preparing legal opinions.

It is also helpful to include the names and contact information of people or agencies who can be contacted for additional background information, as well as names and contact information for any known stakeholders whose views should be solicited in connection with an opinion. 

8. Are the Attorney General's opinions public?

All legal opinions issued by the Attorney General are open to public inspection under the Public Records Act. Most are also available on the Attorney General’s website, in law libraries, through online legal research services, and published by some legal newspapers.

Written requests for opinions, as well as written statements of views submitted in connection with an opinion request, are public documents and may be provided to third parties under the Public Records Act. However, these materials are not posted on the Attorney General’s website or otherwise published. For more information on how to obtain these materials, please click on Public Records.

In cases where the Attorney General has an attorney-client relationship with a public official or agency, the Attorney General may provide confidential advice and opinions regarding pending or anticipated litigation. In these cases, the agency or public official should not request a formal opinion from the Attorney General’s Opinion Unit, but should instead contact the appropriate Attorney General’s legal department in an attorney-client capacity.

9. Are the Attorney General's opinions binding?

The Attorney General’s opinions are advisory, and not legally binding on courts, agencies, or individuals.

Nonetheless, Attorney General’s opinions are usually treated as authoritative by the officers and agencies who have requested them,

In addition, Attorney General’s opinions are often treated as persuasive authority by courts. Courts have expressed this idea in several ways, including:

  • “Although an official interpretation of a statute by the Attorney General is not controlling, it is entitled to great respect.” (Thorning v. Hollister School District (1992) 11 Cal.App.4th 1598, 1604.)
  • “Opinions of the Attorney General, while not binding, are entitled to great weight. [Citations.] In the absence of controlling authority, these opinions are persuasive ‘since the legislature is presumed to be cognizant of that construction of the statute.’ [Citation.]” (Napa Valley Educators’ Association v. Napa Valley Unified School Disrict. (1987) 194 Cal.App.3rd 243, 251.)

10. How long does it take to write an Attorney General's opinion?

It generally takes several months to write an opinion. For a variety of reasons, it is often not possible to accurately predict when a particular opinion will be published. The Attorney General’s Office is not in a position to expedite formal legal opinions at this time.

11. How can I comment on a question that the Attorney General is considering?

Please send your comments in writing by mail or email to the Deputy Attorney General assigned to the matter. Please include the opinion number in your correspondence. To browse the questions currently being considered, or to find out who is assigned to the question you are interested in, please click on the Monthly Opinion Report page.

The Attorney General’s Opinion Unit makes substantial efforts to solicit comments from persons or entities which may have such knowledge, but we realize that we cannot expect to reach everyone, and we encourage all those with an interest to make themselves and their views known to us.

All comments submitted before a draft is prepared will be considered, but earlier comments are preferred to late-arriving ones.

12. How can I obtain a copy of an Attorney General's opinion that has already been published?

You may write, email or call the Opinion Unit at the following address:

Office of the Attorney General
Opinion Unit, Dept. of Justice
Attn: Stephanie Grimes
P.O. Box 944255
Sacramento, CA 94244-2550
(916) 324-5172
Email: Stephanie.Grimes@doj.ca.gov

13. What is Quo Warranto?

Generally speaking, the purpose of a quo warranto action is to determine whether a public official is legally entitled to hold the office he or she is serving in.

The statutes relating to quo warranto actions are in the California Code of Civil Procedure, starting at section 803. “Quo warranto” is Law Latin for “by what authority”—as in, by what authority does this person hold this office? The words “quo warranto” are not in the statutes, but the action is still known by the name it had when it existed as part of the common law.

Quo warranto is used to “try title” to a public office—for example, to determine whether a public official satisfies a requirement that he or she reside in the district; whether a public official is serving in two incompatible offices; or whether an election or appointment process was done according to law. Quo warranto is not available to decide whether a public official has committed misconduct in office. Other forms of action are available for that purpose.

The Attorney General must approve all quo warranto actions (except those actions that a public agency is authorized to file for itself). This protects public officers from frivolous lawsuits. The Attorney General’s Opinion Unit is responsible for administering this approval process.

In order to obtain approval, a person who wants to file a quo warranto action (called the “relator” because he or she relates the complaint to the Attorney General) must follow a formal process established by the Attorney General. The relator must arrange for proposed pleadings to be prepared by a licensed attorney, must provide the pleadings to the Attorney General, and must serve the pleadings on the public official in question. The public official then has an opportunity to respond to the claims made in the proposed pleadings. The relator may submit a reply. The Opinion Unit reviews all of the pleadings, and then issues an opinion either granting or denying the application to sue.

If approval is given, the relator files the lawsuit and handles it in court, under the supervision of the Attorney General. The court then decides whether the public official is or is not entitled to hold the office.

For more information about the quo warranto process, please click on the Quo Warranto - Right to Public Office page.

How to Submit a Question of Law for AG Consideration

The Attorney General is authorized to give opinions on questions of law to state legislators, heads of state departments, district attorneys, county counsels, sheriffs, and to city attorneys in their prosecutorial capacities. For more information about requesting an opinion, please see our FAQs and the Guidelines for AG Opinions.pdf a downloadable resource provided for users' reference.

To submit a request, or to ask questions about how to submit a request, please contact:

  • Susan Duncan Lee
  • Supervising Deputy Attorney General
  • Office of the Attorney General
  • Opinion Unit, Dept. of Justice
  • 455 Golden Gate Ave., Suite 11000
  • San Francisco, CA 94102

  • Susan.Lee@doj.ca.gov


How to Request a Copy of an Existing Opinion

A copy of a published opinion may be obtained by contacting the Opinion Unit:

  • Office of the Attorney General
  • Opinion Unit, Dept. of Justice
  • Attn. Stephanie Grimes
  • P. O. Box 944255
  • Sacramento, CA 94244-2550

  • Stephanie.Grimes@doj.ca.gov

  • Printed hardbound volumes of Opinions of the Attorney General of California are published by Lexis Publishing and may be read in public libraries. Opinions are also available online through Lexis dating back to 1960.


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