Wielding new power handed to him by lawmakers, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback turned to his own administration to fill a seat on the state Court of Appeals.
Brownback on Tuesday nominated his chief legal counsel, Caleb Stegall, for a newly created 14th seat on the appeals court. It marks Brownback’s first appointment with a new law that lets the governor unilaterally nominate judges to the court.
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Over the years, the 41-year-old Stegall has shown himself to be opposed to abortion, supportive of the environment and critical of a landmark state Supreme Court ruling that forced the state to spend millions on schools.
The Republican governor’s selection process was largely kept secret, with none of the applicants identified publicly. The nomination now goes to the Senate, where lawmakers have promised a thorough vetting.
However, Stegall’s confirmation is seen as likely since the Senate is controlled by conservative Republicans whom Brownback helped get elected in 2012.
The Senate will take up the nomination when the Legislature convenes Sept. 3 to tweak a constitutional problem with the state’s criminal sentencing law.
Brownback was immediately criticized Tuesday for trying to pack the state courts with his political allies.
“This is a glaring example of Washington-style cronyism alive and well in Topeka,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat.
Until this year, state appeals court judges were screened by a nine-member nominating commission that included five lawyers, plus four non-attorneys named by the governor. The governor chose from three nominees selected by the commission.
Stegall went through that process last year and was passed over by the nominating commission for two vacancies on the court.
Brownback described Stegall as a mainstream legal scholar, pointing out that the nominee had recommendations from former Democratic Attorney General Steve Six and the head of the gaming commission under former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
“If confirmed, Caleb will be one of the most, if not the most, qualified person to go on the Kansas Court of Appeals the last several decades,” Brownback said.
Brownback touted Stegall’s representation of American missionaries who were trapped in Haiti following an earthquake. The missionaries were arrested when they tried to transport Haitian children thought to be orphaned to the Dominican Republic for care. However, the charges eventually were dropped and the missionaries were freed.
Stegall thanked everyone who recommended him for the job, including those who disagreed with him about changing the system for how judges are picked.
“All of these have provided an example of the professionalism, the collegiality, the independent judgment and political disinterest that really defines our profession,” Stegall said at a news conference. “These are the qualities that I will strive every day to embody.”
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.
He later was elected Jefferson County attorney before taking a job as legal counsel with the Brownback administration.
The Brownback administration would not make Stegall available for questions, citing judicial canons that forbid judicial candidates from indicating how they might rule on issues likely to come before the court.
However, Stegall has left a track record that might provide insight into how he views some issues.
Stegall has been open about his opposition to abortion, a key issue since a couple of abortion-related lawsuits are pending in state court, including one challenging rigid new rules for abortion clinics.
In an online chat hosted by the Lawrence Journal-World in 2008, Stegall described himself as “pro-life,” adding that the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion was “weak” and the issue should be left to the states.
Stegall also defended 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.
He also said in that online chat that he worked as general counsel for Americans for Prosperity, a conservative think tank founded and partly funded by billionaires David and Charles Koch. Some of the group’s ideas, like abolishing the state arts commission and merging the Human Rights Commission with the attorney general’s office, have surfaced in Brownback’s agenda as governor.
Stegall also said in that interview that he served on the executive committee of Audubon of Kansas, which promotes conservation.
During an interview with the Journal-World in 2004, the father of five children expressed disdain for uncontrolled development.
In the story, Stegall wondered whether Lawrence “gives in to unrestrained progress and unlimited consumption of land...”
“I think that what we’re advocating is a respect for and an acknowledgment of the natural constraints that are on all of human life,” Stegall said in 2004.
“It’s really an agricultural metaphor: Are we putting back into the soil everything we’re taking out of it?”
Stegall also wrote a report for the conservative-leaning Kansas Policy Institute. The report criticized the 2005 court ruling that ordered the Legislature to put more money 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.”