Process stirs angst in Kan. court debate
By JOHN HANNA
AP Political Writer
TOPEKA -- Gov. Sam Brownback's critics have focused more on the process that led him to nominate his chief counsel to the Kansas Court of Appeals than on whether the nominee is qualified.
The Kansas Senate expects to vote this week on Brownback's appointment of Caleb Stegall to the state's second-highest court. He's likely to win confirmation by a wide margin, barring a surprise revelation or huge misstep, because the governor's fellow GOP conservatives hold a supermajority in the Senate.
Stegall generally is expected to be a conservative voice on the court, but much of the criticism of his nomination has centered instead on Brownback's refusal to release the names of other candidates. Critics argue that Kansans don't know whether Stegall was the best candidate available, as Brownback and his aides have asserted.
And the governor's critics still are protesting a law that took effect in July, changing how Court of Appeals judges are selected. Under the old system, still in place for Kansas Supreme Court seats, a nominating commission led by lawyers screened applicants and named three finalists, with no role for lawmakers after the governor's appointment. Now, the governor's office screens the candidates and he makes the appointment, subject to Senate confirmation.
Conservative Republicans' control of the Senate would automatically smooth the way for any Court of Appeals nominee's confirmation. But a large vote in Stegall's favor seems even more certain because he's not being attacked directly.
"I think he's qualified," said Sen. David Haley, of Kansas City, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "The question is the process."
Brownback is calling the Legislature into special session Tuesday to fix a law allowing convicted murderers to be sentenced to at least 50 years in prison. Because lawmakers are meeting, the Senate is legally obligated to consider pending appointments, and its Judiciary Committee has scheduled Stegall's confirmation hearing for Tuesday. The full Senate expects to vote on his nomination Wednesday.
Stegall, 41, served two years as Jefferson County's elected prosecutor before joining Brownback's staff when the governor took office in January 2011. He also was an attorney in private practice, best known for defending four Americans detained in Haiti after trying to remove 33 children who they believed had been orphaned in its 2010 earthquake. It was later determined that the children had parents, but Stegall's clients returned to the U.S. without facing charges.
He graduated third in his law school class at the University of Kansas in 1999, later serving as a clerk for then-Chief Judge Deanell Tacha of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. He was an attorney in the state's largest private law firm for four years before opening his own office outside Lawrence in 2005. Tacha and a bipartisan group of attorneys wrote recommendation letters for Stegall.
"This process should be focused on whether a person is qualified to be a judge," said Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff King, an Independence Republican.
Yet Stegall's status as a top aide to Brownback is an opening for his critics to question Stegall's elevation to a new appeals-court judgeship created this year.
Before the selection process changed, Stegall applied for two Court of Appeals vacancies in 2012, and each time, the nominating commission passed him over. During a public interview with Stegall in November, commission members focused on his experience, with one noting that some applicants had been lawyers twice as long.
House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat who's now considering a run for governor, had called Stegall "well-qualified" for the appeals court.
Still, last week, Davis said, "It doesn't instill confidence in the process when the governor picks his own lawyer."
When the nominating commission screened Court of Appeals applicants, it disclosed the names of all candidates, though its deliberations on which candidates became finalists were closed.
Brownback argued that releasing the names of all candidates for the new position would discourage some qualified applicants. Also, his refusal to disclose the names was in keeping with how governors traditionally have handled major appointments.
"This process requires the governor's nominee to stand in front of the public and the Senate to answer questions," said Brownback spokeswoman Eileen Hawley. "This is not something that occurred under the old system, and I do not understand how people can claim this is not a transparent, open, public process."
Sen. Jeff Longbine, an Emporia Republican who supported changing the judicial selection process, said the first appointment under the new law "did not go as smoothly as some of us would have wanted." He cited Brownback's refusal to release names of other candidates and Stegall's nomination just two weeks before the start of the special session.
But Longbine also said Stegall appears to be "a very good attorney."
"Leave the politics out of it, because whether we agree with the selection process or not, that decision has been made," Longbine said. "The decision for the Senate is: Is he qualified for that position?"
EDITOR'S NOTE: Political Writer John Hanna has covered Kansas government and politics since 1987. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/apjdhanna .