Archive for Thursday, August 29, 2013

Top Democrat, Kansas governor’s staff spar over court choice

August 29, 2013


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."


Larry Sturm 4 years, 8 months ago

Mabe Brownback didn't interview any other candidates.

Jim Russo 4 years, 8 months ago

I wonder if among the documents Stegall submitted to the Judiciary Committee is a 2005 editorial he co-signed addressing a court order allowing the withholding of feeding to Terri Schindler-Schiavo; Stegall and his co-authors stated if the Florida legislature and Governor Bush failed to intervene, that her family, friends and community would be "morally free to contemplate and take extra-legal action as they deem it necessary to save Terri’s life, up to and including forcible resistance to the State’s coercive and unjust implementation of Terri’s death by starvation."

The editorial may be found in its entirety at

I'm no expert on legal theory or qualifications to be a judge, but it does seem odd that a candidate for the Court of Appeals has endorsed extra-legal action and forcible resistance to a court order.

irvan moore 4 years, 8 months ago

maybe some of the other applicants could out themselves as applicants

rtwngr 4 years, 8 months ago

Nobody was allowed to vett any of the Sebelius apointees. This is just a bunch of whining by the losers of the last election. Too bad, so sad. What goes around, comes around. How are you going to like it when the Republicans win the White House back and start having the Attorney General's office start investigating liberal groups merely for the purpose of harassing them. How will you like it when IRS removes tax exempt status from left wing organizations with the word "progressive" in it and refuses to render a decision on subsequent applications for similar groups. Pretty chilling thought isn't it.

Tyler Palmer 4 years, 8 months ago

You appear to be unaware of the previous Appeals Court nomination process in Kansas. That process consisted of a non-partisan committee who received applicants for open judicial positions, reviewed their qualifications for the position and vetted the applicants before providing the governor with a list of three highly-qualified candidates from which the governor could choose to appoint to the court. This helped ensure that the state courts would have highly-qualified candidates chosen in a non-partisan manner that would not be beholding to any particular governor rather than the new method which is to pick political cronies to pack the courts with partisan agents in an attempt to stop the courts from striking down and/or ruling against the radical policies enacted by our current state government.

Turnitoffthenonagain 4 years, 8 months ago

"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."

Yes, Sebelius appointees were most certainly vetted.

James Nelson 4 years, 8 months ago

You quite obviously don't know what you are talking about.

Who_What_Where 4 years, 8 months ago

If I were one of those nominated and wasn't picked, I wouldn't want my name released. It might hurt my practice and damage my client base - regardless of whether I was political or not. I think the Governor's Office is doing the right thing. There is a reason that KORA provision exists. This seems to fit it.

ModerateOne 4 years, 8 months ago

Sen. Hensley is right that the prior nominating process was better but he's way off base on the idea that experience as a trial court judge somehow better qualifies one to be an appellate judge. The skills necessary to be a good trial court judge are quite different from the skills necessary to be a good appellate judge.

FlintlockRifle 4 years, 8 months ago

Dang, the guy in White House does this all the time, what's new??

elliottaw 4 years, 8 months ago

Don't let the facts get in your way with your made up statements

oldbaldguy 4 years, 8 months ago

Stegall may be very well qualified for the job. ModerateOne's observation is correct. Frankly there are a couple folks up there now that are not all that great. If one believes a sitting govenor did not have input on candidates under the old system, one would be mistaken.

James Nelson 4 years, 8 months ago

Sam Brownback fails miserably as an honorable man. Honorable men do not know selfishness. They respect the law and make decisions based upon a belief of fairness for all. Thank God our founding fathers were honorable men.

Sam Brownback has outright lied to the people of Kansas when he selfishly claims Caleb Stegall is the most qualified candidate to fill the seat on the appeals court. The most qualified person would be ANY existing judge who have had rulings appealed and had their rulings upheld. For the governor to appoint someone who agrees with his views on two of the most contentious issues facing Kansas today is most disingenuous, especially when the governor's views are at odds with existing precedent setting rulings made at the supreme court level, one state and one federal.

No one should disagree with the one qualification that should be at the top of the list of qualifications for any judge - that of being impartial regardless of what type case is presented. If a judge feels strongly about an issue before the court, it amounts to a stacked deck against one of the parties.

Since Stegall has written extensively praising the pro-life movement and negatively about the school finance ruling handed down by the state supreme court, is there any doubt as to how he would rule in cases containing those subject matters?

Any person failing the impartiality requirement is not fit to sit on any bench, much less a seat on one of our higher courts. The people of Kansas should appropriately be up in arms about a governor who would attempt to stack the appellate court with judges who will not offer a sense of fairness to both sides in every case before their court. If the Kansas state senate is made up of honorable men they can only turn down the governor's request to confirm Caleb Stegall.

oldexbeat 4 years, 8 months ago

Liar Sammy at it again -- probably got a few Kochs and a Kline and a KKKris on the list. Maybe Rick Perry flew up, staying in the basement at Cedar Crest might give him a Kansas residency?

Or maybe there was Lynn Jenkins, the Tea Party Queen ? I mean judge for life is a better take of government money than Congress. (Although they get great pension and Health Care plans, too).


Charlie Bannister 4 years, 8 months ago

I know and like Mr. Stegall. Three cheers to Brownback for appointing him. Awesome choice.

jafs 4 years, 8 months ago

Without knowing who the other applicants were, how can you determine that Stegall is the best choice?

And, knowing and liking somebody is nice, but doesn't mean they're the most qualified for any particular job.

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