Attorney General Opinions
A formal Attorney General Opinion answers legal questions of a public nature that relate to a public official's duties. In other words, an Attorney General's Opinion helps to interpret laws and guide state and local officials in applying the laws. A formal Attorney General Opinion is similar to a legal precedent and stands until a court or later opinion overrules it or new legislation is enacted to change the statute in question. Opinions are not binding on a court, but are usually given careful consideration and respect.
The most appropriate questions for opinions are questions about inconsistent statutes or legal principles, confusion in the law itself, the constitutionality of a statute or rule, or legal disputes between two government entities.
What questions are not appropriate for an Attorney General's Opinion?
- Questions or matters that are involved in pending litigation.
- Disputes between private persons.
- Questions seeking to resolve a question of fact or policy rather than a question of law.
- Legal questions that are dependent on the facts of a specific incident.
- Questions that are not about state laws.
- Questions that are likely to be rendered moot, such as questions on pending legislation.
- Questions on matters where a conflict of interest exists for the Attorney General or the requestor of the opinion.
- Questions seeking to predict the possible outcome of tort liability or contract disputes.
Who can request an Attorney General's Opinion?
The Iowa Code allows the following people to request an Attorney General's Opinion:
- Members of the General Assembly
- State officers (elected or appointed) including the Governor, Lt. Governor, Supreme Court, Secretary of State, Auditor, Treasurer, Secretary of Agriculture, and the heads of state boards, commissions, and departments
- County attorneys
Who cannot request an Attorney General's Opinion?
- Local officials - county, municipal, and school board members
- Governmental staff
How is an Attorney General's Opinion requested?
- Review the guidelines about what questions are not appropriate for Attorney General Opinions
- Review the Attorney General's Administrative Rules, 61 Iowa Administrative Code 1.5, to determine compliance with them.
- Put the opinion request in writing in letter form and make it clear that you are requesting an official opinion.
- Address the letter to the Attorney General as follows:
The Honorable Thomas J. Miller
Attorney General of Iowa
Hoover State Office Building
1305 E. Walnut St.
Des Moines, Iowa 50319
- Indicate any information that may be helpful, including relevant research, statutes, cases, prior opinions, agency rules or decisions.
- Include information about why the question is significant, why it relates to the requestor's duties, and information about the context in which the issue arises.
- Note any special needs for expedited issuance of the opinion. (Please note that those needs will be considered, but it is impossible to guarantee the exact release date.)
- Note if litigation on the issue is pending or imminent.
- County attorneys should include their research on the issues.
How Does the Attorney General respond to requests for opinions?
- The Attorney General first determines whether an opinion is the appropriate form of response. The Attorney General has the authority to deny a request for an opinion.
- Opinions involve a lengthy research and review process. Each opinion is reviewed by the drafting attorney, the division director, a deputy attorney general, and the Attorney General. The opinion may be revised throughout the process.
- Although the opinion is signed by the drafting attorney, all opinions reflect the official position of the office.
- Because of the precedential importance of the opinion, the process generally takes at least 120 days.
Are there alternatives to formal Attorney General Opinions?
- Alternatives to formal opinions do exist. Examples are letters of advice and informational letters, called informal Letter Opinions. These alternatives are not binding and take less time to research and issue.
- Most advice to state agencies is provided in the form of informal advice. Keep in mind that informal advice represents the position of the individual attorney and should not be described as an Attorney General Opinion.
- If a question seeks to interpret statutes that are implemented by state agencies, the agencies can be asked to issue a rule or declaratory ruling. These agency rulings are binding.
Where can you find Attorney General Opinions?
- The initial requestor will receive the original opinion in letter form.
- Formal Attorney General Opinions issued after 1898 and informal Letter Opinions issued by the Office of the Attorney General are available through the Attorney General Opinion database.
- Copies are provided by the State Law Library, law school libraries, Westlaw and LEXIS.
- Copies of individual opinions may be requested by contacting the Office of the Attorney General of Iowa:
Office of the Attorney General of Iowa
Hoover State Office Building
1305 E. Walnut St.
Des Moines, IA 50319