Washington, Patton, Schwarzkopf and ... Ashcroft?

By Herz, Michael | Constitutional Commentary, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Washington, Patton, Schwarzkopf and ... Ashcroft?


Herz, Michael, Constitutional Commentary


I. INTRODUCTION--GENERALS, GENERALS EVERYWHERE

War may be too important to be left to the generals, but law, apparently, is not.

If you attend a Supreme Court argument in a case of sufficient significance to be argued by the Solicitor General ("SG") himself, you will hear something like this:

 
   QUESTION: That's just part of it. It also, it also imputes 
   nonhouseholds as households. I mean, it does a lot of things. 
 
   MR. DELLINGER: It imputes only to known addresses. 
   Thank you. 
 
   QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Dellinger. General Olson, we'll 
   hear from you. 
 
   ORAL ARGUMENT OF THEODORE B. OLSON, 
   SOLICITOR GENERAL, DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, 
   ON BEHALF OF THE FEDERAL APPELLEES 
 
   GENERAL OLSON: Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the 
   Court.... (1) 

Ah yes, "General" Olson. A military man.

If you cross the street to attend, say, a congressional hearing on security issues at which Attorney General ("AG") John Ashcroft is testifying, you may hear something like this:

 
   SEN. BYRD: The committee will resume its hearings.... 
   General Ashcroft, we welcome you to the Senate Appropriations 
   Committee as we conduct our hearings on homeland security.... 
   General Ashcroft, you're a key player in implementing 
   America's homeland security strategy. 

And then, perhaps you head down Constitution Avenue to attend a Department of Justice press conference. There, Ashcroft introduces Representative Tom Delay, who says:

 
   Thank you, general.... This solution is a very important step 
   in that direction. We will strengthen the law so that it can pass 
   constitutional review. We greatly appreciate General 
   Ashcroft for joining with us to develop this effective solution.... 
   We will be working with the Judiciary Committee 
   and other leaders on this issue.... So I thank you, general. (3) 

And so your day would go. As long as you were around the Department of Justice, you would have the sense that the military had taken over. Neither attorneys nor solicitors are in charge. Generals are.

The tendency to call the AG and the SG "General" is not new (though I will suggest that it is more comfortable after September 11), nor is it pervasive. But it is common--particularly, it seems, among government officials. (4) As far as I know, it is not officially endorsed by DO J; the Department's own publications and website do not use that formulation. Reportedly, Janet Reno disliked being called "General" and "abandoned" the title. (5) When John Ashcroft became AG, he told reporters lie did not care if he was called "John, General, Mr. Ashcroft, or 'Hey, you.'" (6) "You can call me anything, just don't call me late for dinner." (7)

In this article, I argue that the practice of calling the AG and the SG "General" should be abandoned. This usage is flatly incorrect by the standards of history, grammar, lexicology, and protocol. Of course, those standards are mutable; if everyone called John Ashcroft the same thing they call Norman Schwarzkopf or George Patton, then at some point doing so would be correct by historical, grammatical, lexical, and protocolian (?) standards. But I will make a normative argument against this usage as well. Law, also, is too important to be left to the generals.

II. THE ATTORNEY GENERAL IS A KIND OF ATTORNEY, NOT A KIND OF GENERAL

A. GRAMMAR

Notwithstanding the popularity of "come here, gorgeous," it is grammatically incorrect to call someone by an adjective. But that is what the "general" in "Attorney General" is. That is why the plural is "Attorneys General." Indeed, despite its flavor of annoying pedantry, the careful use of "Attorneys General" and "Solicitors General" is quite universal. In contrast, the plural of "Brigadier General" is not "Brigadiers General"; nor do we refer to "Chiefs Justice. …

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