Topeka A Senate committee on Tuesday recommended approval of Gov. Sam Brownback's nomination of Caleb Stegall to the Kansas Court of Appeals under a new judicial selection process that has generated criticism from Democrats and open government advocates.
Stegall's supporters described him as a top-notch lawyer with a pristine reputation, while detractors called into question his ability to separate his political beliefs from rulings he'll be asked to make on the state's second highest court.
Stegall, 41, who is Brownback's chief counsel, faced questions about a written statement from 2005 in which he advocated "forcible resistance" to a court order to remove life support from Terri Schiavo. The Florida woman had been in a vegetative state and was at the center of the national right-to-die debate.
Stegall said his support of "forcible resistance" to the court order was an example of civil disobedience that is well-recognized in history as a needed step to advance social progress, such as in the area of Civil Rights.
But Stegall said he was not speaking as a judge when he made the Schiavo statement, and that he would be able to put aside personal beliefs and biases if confirmed to the bench by the full Senate, which will take up his nomination Wednesday.
Under questioning from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Stegall, who has represented conservative groups and politicians such as former attorney general Phill Kline, said he would faithfully and impartially interpret the law. "That is absolutely what I would do," he said.
The committee voted to confirm his nomination with only Republican support.
Concerning the Schiavo case, Stegall, who had been editor of The New Pantagruel, an online Christian magazine, and his colleagues at the magazine issued an editorial statement.
"It now appears that all legal recourse to save Terri’s life has failed. As Terri’s family and millions of people know, the State is wrong. There is a higher law. If last-ditch efforts in the Florida Legislature and the United States Congress also fail, and the administration of Governor Jeb Bush fails in its duty to uphold the higher law, those closest to Terri—her family, friends, and members of their communities of care—are 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 statement said.
Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka criticized Stegall and said he was not fit to serve on the bench.
"An individual who openly advocates forcible resistance of a valid court order relying on a higher law raises serious questions as to their qualification to be appointed to the second highest court in the state of Kansas," Hensley said.
Hensley said Stegall's nomination "demonstrates the worst kind of political cronyism that is alive and well today under Gov. Sam Brownback."
Hensley said that Stegall has no judicial experience, has worked for the most right-wing groups in the state and has indicated an inability to prevent his political agenda "from clouding his legal work."
Stegall described Hensley's statements as mischaracterizations and smears.
Stegall was praised by several fellow legislators, including state Rep. Ramon Gonzalez, who is also chief of police in Perry, and worked on a homicide case with Stegall when Stegall was the Jefferson County prosecutor.
"He was very, very competent," said Gonzalez.
Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, said Stegall has a "pristine reputation," and "knows the proper place of the judiciary."
The League of Women Voters and MainStream Coalition opposed the nomination because they said Brownback had made the new selection process more secretive and partisan than the former system.
Brownback, with the help of Stegall and conservative Republicans in the Legislature, pushed for a new law that allows the governor to select judges for the appeals court, subject to Senate confirmation. Stegall is the first one selected under this new method.
Under the former system, a nominating commission took applications and interviewed candidates before forwarding three possible nominees to the governor, who picked one. The nominating commission had made public all applicants, while Brownback has refused to divulge the names other those who applied.