September 4, 2013

Kansas ‘Hard 50’ bill goes to governor; Stegall confirmed to Court of Appeals

Sentencing legislation is revised after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling suggested it contained a constitutional flaw. Stegall’s nomination was the first under a new procedure for picking appellate judges in Kansas.

The Kansas Senate on Wednesday sent Gov. Sam Brownback a bill revising the state law that allows 50-year sentences in certain murder cases.

The Senate also confirmed Caleb Stegall to the Kansas Court of Appeals, ratifying Brownback’s first appointment under a new law that gives the Kansas governor more say over who is chosen for the state’s second-highest court.

To fix a potential constitutional flaw, the so-called “Hard 50” legislation requires juries rather than judges to decide if the facts of a case warrant a sentence of 50 years without parole.

Wednesday’s 40-0 Senate vote came one day after the House approved the measure 122-0.

The action came during a special legislative session prompted by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a Virginia case. The high court ruled that giving judges the sole authority to determine whether to impose a mandatory minimum sentence was unconstitutional.

Kansas adopted the “Hard 50” in 1999, replacing a mandatory 40-year sentence that had been in place since 1990.

Stegall’s confirmation, on a 32-8 vote, was never really in doubt because Brownback’s fellow conservative Republicans have a supermajority in the Senate, and none of them publicly expressed misgivings about his appointment to the state’s second-highest court.

The debate over Stegall’s nomination focused more on the selection process than on the 41-year-old nominee’s past.

Even Brownback critics said Stegall is qualified to serve on the Court of Appeals. However, some saw Brownback’s appointment as political cronyism and criticized the governor for refusing to disclose the name of other candidates.

The appointment was the first under a law that took effect in July, changing the selection process for Court of Appeals judges.

Under the old system, still in place for the Supreme Court, a nominating commission led by attorneys screened applicants and named three finalists, with no role for lawmakers after the governor’s appointment.

Now, the governor makes the appointment, subject to Senate confirmation, with no role for the nominating commission.

Stegall applied last year for the Court of Appeals when it had two vacancies, and each time, the nominating commission passed him over as a potential finalist. Brownback advocated changing the selection process, and legislators funded a 14th seat on the Court of Appeals this year.

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