Topeka In an historic vote after a contentious debate, the Kansas Senate on Wednesday confirmed Gov. Sam Brownback's nomination of his chief counsel, Caleb Stegall, to the Kansas Court of Appeals.
The approval of Stegall for the state's second-highest court represented the first nomination under a new judicial selection system that was pushed for by Brownback, Stegall and conservative Republicans who dominate the Legislature.
Stegall, 41, was confirmed on a partisan vote of 32-8.
Stegall, a former Jefferson County prosecutor, was praised by supporters as a top-notch and fair-minded lawyer who would apply the law impartially. They pointed out that Stegall had received glowing letters of support from both Republicans and Democrats.
But detractors came from two camps — those who said they feared Stegall's conservative ideology would taint his judicial decisions, and those who complained that Brownback's selection was shrouded in secrecy and politicized the judiciary.
In 2005, as editor of an online magazine, Stegall encouraged "forcible resistance" to a court order to remove the life support from Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman who was the center of a national debate on the right to die. In the article, Stegall referred to a "higher law" to protect Schiavo.
State Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, said Stegall had "publicly advocated for mob rule based on a higher law."
But Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, said Stegall had defended his comment, saying that it represented the theory of civil disobedience.
During his testimony Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Stegall said as a judge he would follow the law as written in statutes.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, criticized the way Stegall was nominated by Brownback.
"The process was so secret and the public was not allowed in," Hensley said.
Under the new process, the governor appoints judges to the Kansas Court of Appeals with confirmation from the Senate. Brownback declined to divulge who else applied for the job.
Under the former system, a nominating commission interviewed candidates and submitted three potential nominees to the governor, who would pick one. The names of all applicants were made public.
But state Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell, said he was tired of the governor "being raked over the coals." Ostmeyer said Stegall "is a great guy," adding, "I'm disappointed that we drag someone through the gutter, such a good person."