Topeka — Three notable Kansans this week have criticized the process that Gov. Sam Brownback used to appoint his chief counsel to the Kansas Court of Appeals.
Former Kansas Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum Baker and former federal appellate judge Deanell Reece Tacha together wrote an op-ed piece criticizing the new selection method and the secrecy surrounding Brownback's appointment of Caleb Stegall.
And former Kansas Attorney General Steve Six released a column today that says the new selection process was a step backward that will hurt democracy in Kansas.
"The secretive selection and political wrangling over the current candidate will weaken Kansans' confidence in their judges, create a less independent judiciary, and erode the separation of powers," Six said.
Six said that Brownback's "long game" is to change the Kansas Constitution and apply the new appointment process for the appeals court to the Kansas Supreme Court.
"Kansans should prepare to man the barricades, to defend our Kansas Constitution, and to not allow partisan politics to change the way we select fair, independent, and qualified justices on the Kansas Supreme Court," Six said.
The dispute is over a new law that was pushed for by Brownback, Stegall and other conservative Republicans that changes the way judges are selected to the second-highest court in Kansas.
Under the previous system, when a vacancy occurred on the appeals court, a nominating commission received applications, vetted candidates, conducted interviews and presented a slate of three potential nominees to the governor, who would pick one.
But under the new system, the governor appoints a candidate to the court, subject to Senate confirmation. Stegall will face Senate confirmation next week during a special legislative session.
Brownback's selection of Stegall was the first one under the new law. Stegall had been passed over twice under the old procedure. In addition, under the nominating commission system, candidates names were made public and even the interview process was open to the public.
Brownback said the old system wasn't fair because lawyers dominated the nominating commission and the Legislature had no input into the process.
Brownback has refused to divulge the names of those who applied for the position, saying making the names of candidates public will deter potential candidates from applying.
In their comments, Kassebaum, Tacha, and Six said they weren't criticizing Stegall, but said they were concerned with the process.
"We cannot let Kansas be the place where the judiciary is under any cloud of suspicion that the selection process is based on anything other than merit and that the judges are answerable to anything other than the law, including the Constitution," Kassebaum and Tacha wrote.
Kassebaum, a Republican, represented Kansas in the U.S. Senate from 1978 to 1997. Tacha is currently dean of the law school at Pepperdine University after having retired from the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Former President Ronald Reagan nominated her to the bench.
Tacha, a former longtime Lawrence resident, and Six, a former state district court judge in Lawrence, had each written letters praising Stegall's qualifications. And Brownback noted during his news conference announcing Stegall's appointment that his nominee had the support of Republicans and Democrats.
But Six, a Democrat, said, " … my experience with the candidate does not endorse or support the current secretive partisan selection process — the claims that someone has Democratic or Republican support shows how far we have moved from the previous non-partisan merit selection system that worked so well for many years."