Meet Judge Nels Peterson

By Michael Cuccaro

“Nearly everyone who has litigated has thought once or twice about being a judge.” says Nels Peterson. “An appellate court position is something that I have been interested in for a long time, and those Court of Appeals positions come available when they come available.  When three of them become available that is not an opportunity to miss.”  Judge Peterson is speaking about his own nomination to the Georgia Court of Appeals, part of the monumental addition of three new judges to the twelve incumbent judges. 

From the hundreds of people who were nominated to the strong candidates on the short list, Judge Peterson feels blessed to have been chosen.  Taking office as the new year started, Judge Peterson joins the judiciary after an incredible start to his career.
Judge Peterson has an abiding interest in public policy that eventually led him to work as a legislative aide and then to attend law school.  After graduating from Harvard Law School, he began his legal career clerking for Judge William H. Pryor, Jr, U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.  This was a formative time for Judge Peterson.  He learned the rigor of research and writing, and developed his understanding and appreciation of the law.  He also grew to count Judge Pryor as a friend and mentor who even officiated his wedding, and Judge Peterson continues to admire Judge Pryor’s writing and approach to the law.
Since his clerkship Judge Peterson has been sought after for more and more critical roles.  After beginning private practice as a business litigator at one of Georgia’s most prestigious law firms, he was asked to join the Governor’s Office.  There he coordinated Georgia’s strategy and response at a critical point in the infamous “water wars” with neighboring states.  During this litigation he came to know then-Cobb County Commission Chairman Sam Olens, who invited Judge Peterson to join the Department of Law upon Olens’ election as Attorney General.  With the Attorney General’s Office he became Georgia’s first Solicitor General in 2012, working with Department litigators on significant cases and overseeing appellate litigation.  From there he became general counsel to the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, returning to the environs where fifteen years earlier he had attended meetings as chair of the University System’s Student Advisory Council while attending Kennesaw State University.
Only a week after officially joining the Court of Appeals, Judge Peterson was already at work reading cases in his sparsely decorated new office.  As he and the other judges — Judge Brian Rickman and Judge Amanda Mercier — learn the ropes, they are being integrated onto panels with the more experienced Court of Appeals judges. Judge Peterson credits his fellow judges, Clerk of Court Steve Castlen, and the Court of Appeals staff for doing a terrific job anticipating needs and being proactive in integrating the three new judges and twelve new staff.  The judges, many of whom Judge Peterson already counted as friends, have been very gracious as he develops a more keen sense of the culture at the Court. 
Judge Peterson clearly appreciates the faith that has been placed with him but he doesn’t appear overwhelmed. While the title of “judge” is new to him, he possesses a quiet self-assurance.  Of the transition he says the learning curve is a given but his new role is familiar:  “It IS a state job,” he quips, pointing out that he’s managed to park in the same location through three different positions. That said, interpreting the law and reviewing the decisions of the state’s hundreds of trial courts will be a very new endeavor.  A state job it is, but one with great responsibility and impact . . . which for Judge Peterson IS remarkably familiar.

To read about Judge Peterson's new colleagues on the Court of Appeals bench, please see "Meet the New COA Judges."

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