Commonwealth's attorney

Commonwealth's attorney is the title given to the elected prosecutor of felony crimes in Kentucky and Virginia. Other states in the U.S. refer to similar prosecutors as district attorney or state's attorney.

Commonwealth's attorney
Occupation type
Activity sectors
Law, Law Enforcement
Education required
Law degree, Bar exam
Fields of
Government legal service
Related jobs
Prosecutor, District attorney, State's Attorney, United States Attorney

The prosecution is the legal party responsible for presenting the case against an individual suspected of breaking the law, initiating and directing further criminal investigations, guiding and recommending the sentencing of offenders, and are the only attorneys allowed to participate in grand jury proceedings.[1]

A commonwealth's attorney is the highest law enforcement official in his or her jurisdiction and in many jurisdictions supervises a staff which includes a chief deputy commonwealth's attorney, deputy commonwealth's attorneys and assistant commonwealth's attorneys. The prosecutors decide what criminal charges to bring, and when and where a person will answer to those charges. In carrying out their duties, prosecutors have the authority to investigate persons, grant immunity to witnesses and accused criminals, and plea bargain with defendants.[1]

A commonwealth's attorney is a constitutional officer, which means that the job is established in the state's constitution which defines the position, the broad powers of the elected officeholder and in Virginia, the requirement that every county and every city be served by a commonwealth's attorney. Certain cities in Kentucky and cities in Virginia are independent jurisdictions (hence the term "independent city," a designation conceptually similar to that of cities having imperial immediacy under the Holy Roman Empire) and not part of any county.

The role of commonwealth's attorneys, district attorneys, and state's attorneys should not be confused with the role of a county attorney or city attorney whose authority is usually limited by individual state constitutions to non-felony infractions or misdemeanor cases.

Commonwealth's attorneys are elected in their respective jurisdictions in both Virginia and Kentucky[2] for terms of four years and six years, respectively.


The official name of Virginia is "Commonwealth of Virginia". At the time of the formation of the United States, it was one of three original states that used "Commonwealth" in its name, the others being Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. At the time, Virginia adopted "Commonwealth's attorney" as the title for its official prosecutors, while Massachusetts and Pennsylvania adopted the title district attorney.

When Kentucky broke away from Virginia in 1792 to become the 15th state, Kentucky adopted the style, laws and titles of Virginia, which it has retained, making it the only State outside the original 13 States to have "Commonwealth" in its official name. Commonwealth's Attorneys in Kentucky have broad powers of subpoena, investigation, arrest, and prosecution. All 120 counties and 73 independent cities are served by a Commonwealth's Attorney office, in their respective Judicial District. In Kentucky, courts of general jurisdiction and state-level prosecutorial situations are called Circuit Court ("Superior" or "State" court elsewhere).


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