Father-daughter lawyers in Boise put new meaning in family practice

At 13, Courtney Peterson watched her father in the courtroom helping Ruby Ridge defendant Randy Weaver. Now they try cases together.

krodine@idahostatesman.comSeptember 4, 2013 

Many families include a line of lawyers, but few have father-daughter attorney teams who try cases together.

Chuck and Courtney Peterson, who comprise the legal staff of Boise’s Peterson Law Offices, say the arrangement is comfortable and productive.

“It’s been great,” says Courtney, who joined her father’s Boise criminal defense practice in February 2011. “We are almost essentially the same person. Our personalities …

“Dad, don’t cringe,” she says. "It’s not a horrible thing.”

Chuck Peterson shifts in his chair but assumes a neutral expression.

Courtney Peterson, 33, worked as a flight attendant before following her father into the legal life five years ago. She started out on the other side of the justice scales, working as a prosecutor in Nampa and Kentucky.

“I was practicing in Kentucky, prosecuting family law cases, and I wasn’t loving my job,” Courtney Peterson says. “My dad was looking to hire someone, and I wanted to move back here.”

Now both Petersons occupy a suite of legal offices along River Street south of Downtown.

“Part of me worried a little bit at first: Maybe because we are so close it wouldn’t work,” Chuck Peterson says. “But it works. We tend to have similar reactions to things. And clients who initially call for me often transfer to her … she comes off like me.”

FROM RUBY RIDGE TO KURBANOV

A criminal defense attorney for the past three decades, Chuck Peterson has been involved in some of Idaho’s highest-profile cases, starting when he joined Randy Weaver’s defense team. Weaver was acquitted of murdering a deputy U.S. marshal during a 1992 raid that resulted in the deaths of Weaver’s wife and son on the family’s Ruby Ridge property in northern Idaho.

He also worked on the defense of Sami Al-Hussayen, a University of Idaho graduate student accused of supporting terrorism. Al-Hussayen was acquitted in 2004 of most charges then sent back to Saudi Arabia.

One of the cases Peterson deems most important was closer to home: working to keep Caldwell youth Zachary Neagle out of adult prison. Neagle was 14 when he killed his father in 2009. After pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter, the teen is in the Nampa Juvenile Corrections Center and could be released before he turns 21.

Since joining Peterson Law Offices 2 1/2 years ago, Courtney Peterson has sat next to her dad at the defense table in four trials — most recently the Christopher Higgins murder trial — and teamed with him on many more cases that were resolved out of court. On July 18, a Canyon County jury found Higgins guilty of first-degree murder in the August 2012 shooting death of James Lee Groat.

“On a couple of occasions I’ve let her stand up in big trials and say, ‘No questions,’” Chuck Peterson jokes.

“I never would have gotten to do that in Kentucky,” his daughter says, laughing.

Criminal defense also relies on less glamorous tasks, such as sifting through mountains of documents and recordings provided by prosecutors through the discovery process.

“In the Higgins case I listened to 150 hours worth of jail phone calls,” Courtney Peterson says.

She’s also helping on a notable new case, assigned to Chuck Peterson in June. They’re representing Fazliddin Kurbanov, an Uzbek refugee living in Boise who is accused of terrorism-related crimes.

“It’s difficult as a solo practitioner to take on big cases,” Peterson says.

Sometimes they bring in another attorney on contract. Often they enlist a private investigator or a research-adept law student to help out.

BLOGGING AND LEARNING

Peterson Law Offices doesn’t have a website, but it does have a blog, Idaho Criminal Defense Blog (idahocriminaldefenselaw.com). Courtney Peterson contributes occasionally, notably on what constitutes probable cause for a DUI arrest, but the blog is primarily her father’s way to reach out to young lawyers and people who need lawyers, opining on what to look for in an attorney or how to mount an effective defense.

Peterson learned much of his philosophy of criminal defense from Gerry Spence, a flamboyant, Stetson-wearing Wyoming lawyer who defended Imelda Marcos, the Philippine first lady who fled the country with her dictator husband in 1986 and was later acquitted in a U.S. courtroom of fraud and racketeering charges. With Peterson’s help, Spence also defended Randy Weaver.

At age 13, Courtney sat in on most of the Ruby Ridge trial, watching Spence and her father in action. The defense won that case and, later, won the Weaver family a $3.1 million payment from the federal government.

The Petersons still join forces with Spence’s firm occasionally. The Wyoming defender’s influence shows up periodically in the blog, with Peterson referring to him as “the Sage” or “The Hat.”

“Working with Spence changed the way I practice law,” Peterson says. “He’s incredibly solution-oriented. It’s not so much about the battle, it’s about finding a solution everyone can live with.”

“What I’m trying to convey to her (Courtney) is the same thing: Lawyering isn’t just about advocacy, it’s about problem-solving.”

Courtney Peterson says her father’s lessons have given her a leg up in her career and understanding of legal work.

“As far as mentorship goes, I couldn’t do much better,” she says.

Kristin Rodine: 377-6447

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