Nebraska's top lawyer is headed to court to prevent the state's sweeping death penalty repeal from reversing sentences of those already on death row -- in the latest flare-up between the legislature and Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts' administration.
The legislature delivered a blow to the governor Wednesday when it voted 30-19 to override Ricketts' veto of legislation that would put an end to capital punishment in Nebraska. With the power play by the state's Republican-dominated legislature, Nebraska becomes the first conservative state in decades to end the death penalty.
But Ricketts' administration is not giving up the fight.
While not contesting the ban's impact on future prosecutions, the administration is battling to prevent it from undoing prior death penalty sentences for the 10 inmates currently on death row.
In a written statement, state Attorney General Doug Peterson challenged part of the bill that says the "intent" of the legislature is that any death penalty "imposed but not carried out prior to the effective date of this act" be changed to "life imprisonment."
Peterson said: "We believe this stated intent is unconstitutional."
He said that Nebraska's Board of Pardons has exclusive power to change final sentences imposed by courts.
"Thus, the Attorney General intends to seek a court decision, at the appropriate time, to definitively resolve the issue of the State's authority to carry out the death sentences previously ordered by Nebraska's courts for the 10 inmates now on death row."
A Ricketts spokesman told FoxNews.com Friday that the governor agrees with the AG's assessment and will pursue the court's legal opinion on the matter as soon as possible.
The potential court fight is just the latest example of tensions between the Republican governor and the unicameral body. Though it is officially nonpartisan, the Nebraska legislature is predominantly Republican, which in today's polarized politics makes the drama rather unique: conservative Republicans fighting to end the death penalty, against a governor from their own party trying to maintain it.
"My words cannot express how appalled I am that we have lost a critical tool to protect law enforcement and Nebraska families," Ricketts said in a statement after Wednesday's vote, which broke across party lines and captured the votes necessary to override Ricketts' veto. The legislature had passed the anti-death penalty bill last week, 32-15.
Immediately after the vote, Republican Sen. Beau McCoy, who was against the ban, announced the formation of Nebraskans for Justice to start a petition drive to get reinstatement on the ballot in November.
But this was the third time the legislature voted to repeal capital punishment, which Republicans against it said no longer held to the values of their party, be it morally or fiscally.
"The taxpayers have not gotten the bang for their buck on this death penalty for almost 20 years," said Sen. Colby Coash, a Republican and death penalty opponent. "This program is broken. How many years will people stand up and say we need this?"
Other senators said they philosophically support the death penalty, but were convinced legal obstacles would prevent the state from carrying out another execution ever again. The last one in Nebraska was a 1997 electrocution. The state lost its practical ability to execute inmates in December 2013, when one of the three lethal injection drugs required by state law expired. Opponents charged that it was a poorly managed and inefficient government program.
This wasn't even the first time this week that the unicameral legislature forced the governor's hand on a controversial issue. Lawmakers also overrode his veto of legislation ending Nebraska's ban on issuing driver's licenses to the children of undocumented immigrants. The effort was led by Democratic Sen. Jeremy Norquist.
Before that, the legislature approved an increase in the state gas tax by 6 cents per gallon over four years, for a total of 31.6 cents per gallon, overriding a Ricketts veto earlier this month. Sen. Jim Smith, chief sponsor and a Republican, said the state needs the extra revenue to fix aging roads and bridges.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.