Who will be Gov. Brownback’s judge?

08/19/2013 1:03 PM

08/20/2013 5:54 PM

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback will announce his appointee to the Kansas Court of Appeals on Tuesday. This is big, because it will give an indication of how brazen the governor intends to be when it comes to shaping the court with judges of his ideological bent.

A brief refresher: For decades, appeals court judges as well as state Supreme Court and some county judges in Kansas have been selected by a process whereby a commission screens nominees when a vacancy occurs. The commission passes the names of three finalists on to the governor, who makes the final selection. This method has produced good judges in Kansas, but Brownback and many fellow Republicans in the Legislature haven’t liked some of their rulings. So they are intent on changing the selection process.

They started with the appeals judges, because it was the easiest change to do, requiring only a simple majority vote of the heavily Republican Kansas House and Senate. Getting hold of the Supreme Court nomination process would require a constitutional amendment, and there didn’t appear to be enough votes in the House this past session to put that on the ballot.

Brownback has been secretive about the process so far, refusing to announce the names of the applicants for the appeals position. His office said Monday that 18 people had expressed an interest and completed at least part of the application. Five dropped out fairly early. The remaining 13 were interviewed by the governor’s senior staff, and three were referred to Brownback for a second interview.

The beauty of the jettisoned non-partisan selection process is that candidates were screened by a commission whose members know a lot about the law, about lawyers, and about what makes a good judge. The nine-member commission consisted of four non-lawyers appointed by the governor, four attorneys selected by their peers in each of the state’s four Congressional districts, and a chairman who is elected by other lawyers in the state. Now, the applicants are initially screened by senior members of the governor’s staff.

Who would that be? The departing budget director, maybe? A member of Brownback’s cabinet? We don’t know, but it’s hard to see how the screening committee could possess the legal knowledge that the nominating commission does.

Brownback’s senior staff attorney, Caleb Stegall, has applied for appeals court judgeships before, and hasn’t made the list of three finalists. He is thought to be a candidate this time around, too, and some predict he’ll be the nominee. I have no idea, but a Stegall nomination would signal Brownback’s intention to turn the court in a very conservative ideological direction. Before joining the governor’s staff, Stegall represented former Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline in his crusade against the Planned Parenthood clinic in Overland Park, and in disciplinary proceedings related to Kline’s zealous prosecution of abortion providers.

The nominee, whoever it is, must be confirmed by the Kansas Senate, whose members have been busy preparing an extensive questionnaire. They’ll make a show of due diligence in the special session coming up in September. But it’s hard to imagine the GOP-controlled Senate turning down the governor’s first judicial nominee, and casting their foolish move to change the selection process in an even worse light.

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