Kansas appeals court judge Caleb Stegall, a staunch abortion opponent critical of a landmark school funding case, was named to the state’s high court Friday by Gov. Sam Brownback.
Brownback’s announcement culminated Stegall’s meteoric rise through the judicial ranks less than a year after the governor nominated his former legal counsel to a seat on the Kansas Court of Appeals.
Brownback selected Stegall for the Kansas Supreme Court over fellow appeals court judge Karen Arnold-Burger of Overland Park and district judge Merlin Wheeler.
“I believe Caleb Stegall to be one of the most qualified people ever to go on the Kansas Supreme Court,” Brownback said.
Stegall’s appointment drew an immediate rebuke from Democratic gubernatorial candidate Paul Davis, who contended that the judge lacked seasoning compared with other candidates.
“Instead of choosing a judge with more than 20 years on the bench, he chose his political ally with less than nine months of judicial experience to fill a vacancy on Kansas’ highest court,” Davis said in a statement.
Stegall is a 1993 graduate of Geneva College, a Christian liberal arts school in Beaver Falls, Pa. He graduated from the University of Kansas Law School in 1999, ranking third in a class of 187.
He went on to clerk for the chief judge of the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals and was hired as an associate at the Foulston Siefkin law firm.
Stegall later was elected Jefferson County attorney before taking a job as legal counsel with the Brownback administration.
When he was nominated to the appeals court last year, Stegall came under criticism for a 2005 editorial he wrote urging “forcible resistance” to save the life of Terri Schiavo.
Schiavo was the brain-damaged Florida woman who was at the center of the right-to-die debate when the courts ordered her off life support. Stegall’s editorial appeared on a website he edited called The New Pantagruel.
Stegall told lawmakers that he had long accepted the principle of civil disobedience, but that did not mean the rule of law could not be applied.
The son of a minister, Stegall has been open about his opposition to abortion, a key issue since a lawsuit challenging rigid new rules for abortion clinics is pending in state court.
In an online newspaper chat in 2008, Stegall described himself as “pro-life,” adding that the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion was “weak” and the issue should be left to the states.
Stegall also represented Phill Kline, a former Kansas attorney general and Johnson County district attorney, in legal disputes over his handling of the investigation of Planned Parenthood in Overland Park.
Laura McQuade, president of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, denounced Stegall’s appointment as an indication Brownback favors ideology over an independent judiciary.
“Stegall’s staunch opposition to abortion creates a dangerous situation for Kansas women who rely on the court to rule impartially on the often radical, anti-woman, anti-health-care access laws passed by the state Legislature,” she said.
Stegall also wrote a report for the conservative-leaning Kansas Policy Institute, criticizing a 2005 Kansas Supreme Court ruling that ordered the Legislature to put hundreds of millions of dollars more into schools.
The court decision, he said, was a symptom of a deep pattern of “reckless spending and disregard for fundamental principles of republican forms of self government that has taken hold of both Kansas lawmakers and judges in the past decade.”
Over the years, Stegall has talked about sustainability, whether it’s preserving family life or the environment or helping the poor.
He has expressed concern about urban sprawl and questioned whether the city of Lawrence, for instance, had given into “unrestrained progress and unlimited consumption of land.”
“Our sprawl-mania is ecologically unsustainable, causing dangerous depletions of natural resources from topsoil to water,” he wrote in 2009 for the political website Front Porch Republic.
He told the Lawrence newspaper as early as 2004 that he believed that true conservatism is about sustaining families, traditions and the planet.
Stegall also has lashed out at commercialism, urging people to clear their lives of mass culture influences that choke personal growth, things he described as the “Hollywood weed” or the “Wal-Mart weed.”
“Read the classics and the church fathers instead of junk fiction and self-help crap,” Stegall said in a 2005 interview with Godspy, an online magazine for Catholics. “Get married. Have kids, lots of them. Don’t turn them over to others to raise.”