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Top Dem, Brownback's staff spar over court choice

8/29/2013

By JOHN HANNA

AP Political Writer

TOPEKA -- The Kansas Senate's top Democrat on Wednesday publicly questioned whether Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's chief counsel is qualified to serve on the state Court of Appeals after the governor's office blocked a group's attempt to learn the identities of other candidates for the judicial opening.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka said Caleb Stegall isn't qualified for the state's second-highest court if the other candidates included state district court judges. Brownback nominated Stegall for the position last week, and senators expect to vote on confirming his appointment during a special session of the Legislature that begins Tuesday.

Brownback's administration has described Stegall as the most qualified candidate for the newly created judgeship, and Stegall on Wednesday submitted more than 300 pages of documents to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will review his appointment. The papers included endorsement letters from a bipartisan group of attorneys and magazine articles, online columns and even book reviews Stegall has written.

The 41-year-old Stegall said in the documents that he's had experiences in "a wide variety of legal settings" and is dedicated to "the idea of the profession of law as a service." Brownback spokeswoman Eileen Hawley dismissed Hensley's comments as "partisan politics."

But Hensley said that as long as Brownback refuses to release the names of the other candidates, there's no way to compare Stegall with other potential nominees. He noted that Stegall hasn't served as a district court judge.

"He's not qualified if, in fact, there were other applicants who had previously had experience on the bench," Hensley said.

Eight of the 13 current members of the Court of Appeals previously served as district court judges. Five of the seven Kansas Supreme Court justices are former district court or Court of Appeals judges, though Chief Justice Lawton Nuss is not.

Stegall's appointment is the first since a law took effect in July that changed how Court of Appeals judges are selected. Under the old system -- still in place for Supreme Court spots -- a judicial nominating commission led by attorneys screened applicants and named three finalists, with no role for legislators after the governor picked one. Now, the governor appoints appeals court judges, who are subject to Senate confirmation.

The League of Women Voters also wants to compare Stegall with other candidates and sought to cull a list of applicants from the daily calendars of Brownback, Stegall and two other top gubernatorial aides. But the governor's office removed the other applicants' names from copies of calendars it released Wednesday, citing a provision of the Kansas Open Records Act allowing government agencies to keep records about "applicants for employment" confidential.

Brownback's fellow GOP conservatives have a supermajority in the Senate. But Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff King, an Independence Republican, said it's premature to make sweeping statements about the nominee.

"We haven't had time to thoroughly look at the documents," King said.

Stegall served as Jefferson County's elected prosecutor for two years before joining Brownback's staff in January 2011. As an attorney in private practice, he was best known for defending four American missionaries 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.

"At the end of the confirmation process, I think everybody will agree that Caleb is a remarkably qualified nominee," Hawley said.

Some of Stegall's documents hint at conservative and populist political views.

In the transcript of an online chat in 2008 sponsored by the Lawrence Journal-World, he called the U.S. Supreme Court's historic 1973 ruling legalizing abortion across the nation a "weak decision." He included a 51-page analysis on education funding he wrote in 2009, concluding that Kansas Supreme Court decisions forcing higher spending were an "exercise of raw power" asserting "unfounded authority."

In an online column in January 2009, Stegall wrote: "So, if you start to feel a little bit crazy, your eyes a little googly, a bit like a prophet, mad as a march hare, cheer up, for you are a true son or daughter of the prairie. The pansies and delicate flowers in the sophisticate, go-along-to-get-along crowd aren't worthy to taste the soil and call it good."

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Online:

Brownback's office: https://governor.ks.gov/

Kansas Court of Appeals: http://bit.ly/13nYLxw

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at www.twitter.com/apjdhanna