After 8 years as Attorney General, Peterson reflects on term

Jan. 6, 2023, 10:35 a.m. ·

Attorney General Doug Peterson in 2015
Attorney General Doug Peterson speaks at a news conference in 2015. (Photo: Bill Kelly, Nebraska Public Media)

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After two terms on the job, Doug Peterson stepped aside as Nebraska's attorney general this week.

Fellow Republican Mike Hilgers steps in after being elected to the office without opposition last fall.

During his eight years in office, Peterson oversaw the execution of Carey Dean Moore, the sensational torture/murder trials of Aubrey Trail and Bailey Boswell, and participated in a host of consumer protection lawsuits in cooperation with other states. He also generated headlines with a series of controversial legal challenges to Biden Administration policies ranging from Covid vaccine and mask mandates to student loan forgiveness.

Before he vacated the office, Bill Kelly with Nebraska Public Media news spoke with Peterson about the position he called the "most satisfying job I've ever had."

Former Attorney General Doug Peterson
Former Attorney General Doug Peterson. (Photo: Nebraska Public Media News)

He does not expect to return to government service or politics, choosing instead to return to private practice at the Lincoln law firm Keating O'Gara.

The capital murder cases taken on during Peterson's term as A.G. did nothing but strengthen his belief that capital punishment has a place in American society. Peterson signed the warrant to advance the execution of Moore. In 2018 the convicted killer became the first to die by lethal injection in Nebraska. He abandoned any remaining appeals for killing two cab drivers in Omaha after remaining on death row since 1980.

Doug Peterson: As to the death penalty, I recognize that that's a highly individualized, personal moral decision that people have to make whether or not they support the death penalty. I think our process and all the cases that I've been involved with been very well prosecuted and certainly appealed. And so the biggest challenge is, frankly, right now, every one of those individuals on death row is under an appeal process and none of them can be set up now until that is exhausted, none of those can be set up for an execution date.

Bill Kelly (Nebraska Public Media News): The attorney general and the governor are in the very unique position in death penalty cases of being the ones who identify the person put a name forward to (for) execution. Did that have an effect on you when that landed on your desk? When the death warrant for Cary Dean Moore was going to be advanced?

Peterson: I would say everything surrounding the death penalty requires a lot of deep soul contemplation as to your role. And I think it's recognized for everyone who's engaged in the process, that this is not something that's to be taken lightly. Because you're talking about life. All the way to the people at the correction center who have to carry out some of those responsibilities. So yes, it was not taken lightly by me personally.

Kelly: Does that trouble you at all?

Peterson: Well, when I say it's not taken lightly, is it troubled to do just to contemplate the magnitude of what's taking place? I guess you could call that troubling. But when I look at some of the individuals and the factual circumstances who are now currently on death penalty, the degree of depravity and utter disregard for the dignity of human life and torture and things of that nature, I've concluded that certain individuals, when they show such an utter disrespect for life, that they are the facts surrender their life and to the authority that the states may have, whether that's life in prison, or whether or not that's carrying out of the death penalty.

Kelly: So, you and Governor Ricketts are strong supporters of the death penalty. Only one death penalty case was successfully advanced. During these past eight years, it's been difficult to acquire the drugs necessary for lethal injection. Has that been frustrating for you?

Peterson: The ability to ascertain the drugs, you know, is the primarily challenge at the Department of Corrections. What is been if anything frustrating to me is how our appeal process allows so many different types of attempts to raise an issue, whether through the state or federal appellate process. So I would say that that does frustrate me. But it is what it is. And we deal with it.

Kelly: Has the state made any progress and getting those drugs?

Peterson: No, because we're, as I said, we have those one, it's within Corrections. So I think the focus is are there any of these who have exhausted all of their appeal opportunities?

Kelly: So you actually have to wait for exhausting of an appeal to advance a case and you are going to obtain the drugs. The state isn't going to obtain the drugs until somebody's appeals are exhausted.

Peterson: Correct. Okay, so some of those drugs have shelf lives. And it's a it's a process in which you first have to get through the exhaustion of appeals before you start moving forward in the acquiring the execution drugs.

Kelly: Some states with a death penalty are advocating return to other methods like hanging or firing squad, should Nebraska be considering such a move?

Peterson: No. You know, what I probably hear the most Bill is people say to me, you know, they put my dog painlessly asleep. They've got to be able to do something similar as far as from a medical standpoint, why it has become so complicated. For example, I think Ohio had complications with the drugs. And so the comments I hear from people, they always reference their dog, obviously, there has to be some equal example that would apply to humans that would be so much more humane, and why do they have these complications? I frankly, that's not. In as I said, Corrections is responsible for making the determination of what method to use, what drugs to use. Our responsibility is to primarily make sure that through the legal process all appeals have been exhausted.

Kelly: The Attorney General also serves as the attorney defending the state's interests in civil cases. Over two terms in that office, Doug Peterson seemed to reshape the office's priorities.

Since Peterson took office, he has involved the office in a long list of lawsuits filed jointly by several states. Some sought billions of dollars in damages from drug companies and pharmacy chains for contributing to opioid addictions nationwide.

Others targeted the business practices of big tech companies. Nebraska joined states suing Google for allegedly misusing location tracking of its customers and Instagram for marketing to children.

Peterson: But the social media platform case, first of all, is a classic situation in which there was a business practice that we believe, as the analogs were developed, and the techniques used to keep particularly young people engaged, was an issue that would be difficult for individual families to address on their own as they saw their kids being emotionally psychologically impacted by that. Particularly young ladies.

Kelly: Nebraska joined a second set of lawsuits targeting Google and Facebook. Peterson agreed with other t state attorneys general who felt the companies had become monopolies, controlling massive amounts of data. Why was it important to engage in those social media cases (on behalf of) the state of Nebraska?

Peterson: When I had a presentation made in a closed ag meeting in Portland, Oregon, regarding the amount of data being stored, and the amount of control of that data and how it affected issues of privacy, but that it was primarily giving Google this position of dominance because they'd had such a network effect of their products. That that put, you know, not just Nebraskans, but many, both, from a federal level and a state level a concern with regards to a monopoly power that Google had over data.

Kelly: Your office has also been very active in using the resources to challenge policies of the federal government and even other states, the vaccine mandates forgiving student loans, guidelines defining discrimination against LGBTQ individuals. This was a significant increase in this type of involvement for it for a state attorney general than Nebraska. Why were those types of lawsuits, a good use of Nebraska taxpayer resources?

Peterson: It frankly goes back to the oath again.

The concern was that in these situations, we have our three branches of government. We have our separation of powers provisions.

And what was happening is that the President, at this time, it was the Obama administration was using executive orders to expand the definition of laws, and that's not how executive orders are supposed to be used. And if that were allowed, you may be comfortable with one particular President expanding language in a statute, which is the sole province of the Congress. But that next president, if you turn a blind eye to that, you're allowing the executive branch to exceed and bleed over into the authority of Congress, and the next president who does something similar, you can't have the inconsistency.

So all of that goes to if you say, why should taxpayer money be used for us to be engaged in that is because, Bill, I don't know who else is going to bring the actions to make sure whether it's a Republican or a Democrat president, that they stay within their constitutional powers.

Kelly: The U.S. Supreme Court did hand you I guess you could call it a fairly significant defeat when you and your counterpart in Oklahoma challenged Colorado's legalization of marijuana that had been approved by the residents. Any second thoughts about the wisdom of filing that lawsuit?

Peterson: One of the challenges that we've had is that we think the Supreme Court and a couple of the Supreme Court justices agree with us is that in the Constitution, when it talks about states suing states, it says the Supreme Court has the original jurisdiction. So what was determined is when Nebraska and Oklahoma sued Colorado, the Supreme Court said no, it's a discretionary decision, and we're not interested in hearing the case.

The bigger picture about marijuana in Nebraska is not that particular case but just the overall public policy issue of whether or not it makes sense to allow marijuana industry to come walk into a state throw the word medical out there and somehow not hold them to the same standards that we hold other drug companies to with regards to whether they're actually making an effective medical provable solution.

Peterson said the lawsuits attempting to curb the powers of the U.S. President might have the "broadest ramifications" on a national level. However, it's the victories in human trafficking prosecutions that he called the "personal 'pump-fist' type cases" that meant the most to him during his time in office.