Lancaster County Attorney Joe Kelly

Lancaster County Attorney Joe Kelly

WASHINGTON — Lancaster County Attorney Joe Kelly will do a great job as U.S. attorney for Nebraska, according to the woman who held the job last.

“He will seamlessly transition into that position,” said Deborah Gilg, who served as the U.S. attorney for Nebraska during President Barack Obama’s two terms in office.

Gilg retired from her post earlier this year after she was told by a senior Justice Department prosecutor that she and other U.S. attorneys across the country should resign. She is now the chief operating officer for a health care management company.

President Donald Trump announced Friday that he had tapped Kelly for the role. His nomination still must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Kelly, 61, served as a prosecutor and chief deputy in the office before being elected Lancaster County attorney in 2010 and 2014. The White House cited his years prosecuting “a wide variety of crimes including homicide, robbery, sexual assault and white collar.”

He received his B.A. from the University of Nebraska and his J.D. from the University of Nebraska College of Law.

“Joe Kelly is a highly respected prosecutor who will put the safety of Nebraska’s families and communities first,” Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., said in a press release. “It was my honor to recommend Joe to serve the people of our state in this capacity.”

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he looked forward to working with Kelly as he moves through the committee toward confirmation.

“Joe Kelly is a proven public servant with the humility and honesty that Nebraskans demand and respect,” Sasse said in a release.

Federal nominees typically avoid speaking to the press during the confirmation process, and Kelly’s own comment Friday was brief: “I’m honored to have received the nomination.”

Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law who specializes in the federal judicial system, predicted that Kelly should move relatively quickly through the system and will likely be confirmed early next year.

Gov. Pete Ricketts called Kelly an “outstanding selection” and urged a quick confirmation.

“Joe has served Lancaster County faithfully for more than 20 years, working to protect public safety and enforce the law,” he said. “He is a tenacious and talented attorney and public servant.”

Lancaster County Public Defender Joe Nigro said he has known Kelly all the way back to at least law school and lauded his professionalism.

“Joe is a really good person and he’s an excellent attorney,” Nigro said. “I always knew if he was the prosecutor on the other side that he was going to be well-prepared, well-organized and do a really good, thorough job. But I also knew he would be very fair in dealing with me on the case.”

Nigro praised Kelly for helping to develop alternatives to incarceration such as drug court and veterans court.

Gilg, a former county attorney herself, has known Kelly for years as well and said she has talked to him about his new job.

She said that as a career prosecutor Kelly is well-qualified for the role, although there will be an adjustment period as he gets used to the federal system and a jurisdiction that covers the entire state.

Among the challenges he’ll face, she said, are navigating changes in administration policy toward illegal immigration, battling the ongoing scourge of meth, working to shut down human trafficking and tackling domestic violence issues on reservations.

Almost all of Trump’s picks for U.S. attorneys across the country have been men, with only a few women.

Gilg, who was the state’s first female U.S. attorney, stressed that she completely supports Kelly as the best person for the job in Nebraska.

But she also took issue with the overall lack of diversity in the Trump administration’s nominees thus far.

“There’s something lost in not including women and individuals with diverse backgrounds,” Gilg said. “I’ve watched it and I’ve been saddened by it.”

Reporter - Politics/Washington D.C.

Joseph Morton is The World-Herald Washington Bureau Chief. Morton joined The World-Herald in 1999 and has been reporting from Washington for the newspaper since 2006. Follow him on Twitter @MortonOWH.

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