Senate panel endorses appeals court nominee
TOPEKA (AP) — A Kansas Senate committee Tuesday approved Gov. Sam Brownback's nomination of his chief counsel to the state Court of Appeals after questioning him about past writings on social and political issues.
The Judiciary Committee's voice vote sends Caleb Stegall's nomination to the full Senate for a debate and vote, both of which are expected today. Brownback's fellow Republicans have a supermajority in the chamber, making confirmation a near certainty.
Stegall faced questions during the committee's confirmation hearing about comments in 2005 in an online magazine he edited that encouraged "forcible resistance" to state and federal court orders in an effort to save the life of a brain-damaged Florida woman. He said the magazine only was advocating civil disobedience.
He ducked questions about his personal views on capital punishment, school funding and gun rights, noting that those issues might come before the court.
"The role of a judge is strictly to apply the law as it exists to the facts at hand," Stegall said. "It is certainly not the role of a Court of Appeals judge to change the law."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff King, an Independence Republican, said the hearing demonstrated that Stegall has the right temperament for the bench.
The only committee member voting against Stegall's nomination was Sen. Pat Pettey, a Kansas City Democrat, who said she has concerns about Stegall's conservative views and whether his appointment will compromise judicial independence because of his close ties to the governor. Sen. David Haley, also of Kansas City and the committee's only other Democrat, abstained to protest the selection process.
Stegall's appointment was the first under a law that took effect in July, changing how Court of Appeals judges are selected. Under the old system, still in place for Kansas Supreme Court seats, a nominating commission led by lawyers screened applicants and named three finalists, with no role for lawmakers after the governor's appointment. Now, the governor's office screens the candidates and Brownback makes the appointment, subject to Senate confirmation.
Brownback declined to release the name of the other dozen candidates for the vacancy, and his critics have said that makes it hard to judge whether Stegall was the best-qualified candidate. Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, called the appointment "the worst kind of political cronyism."
But Stegall had written endorsements from a bipartisan group of prominent attorneys, and Brownback on Tuesday called him "a sharp legal mind."
The 41-year-old Stegall served two years as Jefferson County's elected prosecutor before joining Brownback's staff when the governor took office in January 2011.
Stegall also was an attorney in private practice, best known for defending four Americans detained in Haiti after trying to remove 33 children who they believed had been orphaned in its 2010 earthquake. It was later determined that the children had parents, but Stegall's clients returned to the U.S. without facing charges.
Hensley raised the question about a 2005 editorial in The New Pantagruel, the online magazine edited by Stegall, about Terri Schiavo, whose case in Florida inspired a national debate when courts ordered the removal of life support.
Hensley said the editorial's criticism of the courts raised questions about Stegall's fitness for the bench.
But Stegall told the committee that the comments had been mischaracterized and that civil disobedience repeatedly has advanced the cause of human rights.
He also said embracing civil disobedience includes accepting that laws nevertheless will be enforced, views he described as "completely harmonious with the role of a judge." He said he will be fair and impartial and said any nominee would bring "a former life" to the role.
"We don't nominate robots to the bench," he said.