Brownback nominates top adviser to appeals court
TOPEKA (AP) — Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback on Tuesday nominated his chief counsel for a judgeship on the state Court of Appeals, in an appointment that some opponents said lacked oversight and merely bolstered the governor's position.
Caleb Stegall is the first to be nominated as a judge in the state's second-highest court under a law that took effect in July. Under the new system the governor names judges, subject to Senate confirmation. Previously a nominating commission led by lawyers screened applicants and named three finalists, with no role for lawmakers after the governor's appointment.
"I picked the most qualified person," Brownback said.
Stegall, 41, thanked his colleagues for their support, including several Democrats.
"Even though they have good faith disagreements on the matter of how we select our judiciary in Kansas, they have endorsed my nomination for this position because they know my record," he read from prepared remarks. He took no questions from reporters.
Brownback said House Minority Leader Paul Davis described Stegall as "well qualified" for the bench. But Davis, who is considering a challenge to Brownback in the 2014 gubernatorial race, was more pointed in his official reaction.
"The Kansas judiciary should be a pillar of independence and transparency, not a parking lot for Gov. Brownback's well-connected, partisan pals," Davis said in a statement.
Brownback's office released endorsement letters from a bipartisan group of lawyers, including former Kansas Attorney General Steve Six, a Democrat who faced Stegall in abortion-related litigation.
The Kansas Senate will consider the nomination during a special legislative session convening Sept. 3. GOP conservatives hold a supermajority in the Senate, making it likely that Stegall, one of 13 serious applicants for the role, will be confirmed.
Stegall is best known for his defense of four American missionaries who were detained in Haiti after they tried to remove 33 children they believed had been orphaned in a devastating earthquake in 2010. It was later determined that the children had parents; Stegall's clients returned to the U.S. without facing charges.
Sen. David Haley, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee that will consider Stegall's nomination, said he wanted to know what financial or political ties Stegall may have to Brownback that could influence his rulings from the bench. Haley opposed the change in the judicial selection process.
"In our three columns of government, we don't want two of the branches to be too closely married," said Haley, a Kansas City attorney.
The governor defended the selection process, saying the public has more of a voice now because two elected branches of government — which are accountable for their actions — are involved in the process. He said it would be up to legislators to decide if the Kansas Supreme Court, which still fills vacancies through a nominating commission, would remain the same.
Last year the nominating commission passed over Stegall for two vacancies on the Court of Appeals. When lawmakers created a 14th judgeship on the court this year, speculation immediately centered on Stegall as the leading candidate.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, had predicted Stegall would be nominated and suggested Brownback timed the special session to reduce scrutiny of the appointment. Brownback aides say the suggestion is "ridiculous" and that the governor called the session for lawmakers to fix a law that allows convicted murders to be sentenced to at least 50 years in prison.
Stegall, who lives just outside Lawrence, became Brownback's chief counsel when the governor took office in January 2011. Stegall had spent the previous two years as Jefferson County's elected prosecutor.