A Senate committee approved the nomination of Gov. Sam Brownback’s chief counsel to the Kansas Court of Appeals on Tuesday, setting up a confirmation vote in the full Senate on Wednesday.
Caleb Stegall is the first appointee since the Legislature voted earlier this year to allow the governor to appoint judges subject to Senate confirmation.
Previously, a committee of lawyers chosen by the state bar association and non-lawyers selected by the governor would narrow the list to three; the governor made the final appointment.
Stegall, 41, faced questions during the committee 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 was only advocating civil disobedience.
He declined to answer 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 Minority Leader Anthony Hensley expressed concern about Stegall’s lack of judicial experience, link to partisan groups like Americans for Prosperity and the general secrecy surrounding the governor’s nomination process.
“First and foremost, the process in which this nomination has come before the Senate, and thereby the people of Kansas, has been disgracefully lacking in any transparency as the applicants for this nomination were, and remain today, kept secret by Governor Brownback so as to avoid public scrutiny,” Hensley wrote.
Stegall called Hensley’s testimony a “smear campaign” and refuted Hensley’s assertion that he had donated $5,000 toward Brownback’s campaign – he said he donated $250 before he met Brownback personally.
In response to several questions about his lack of judicial experience, Stegall said that many judges join the appellate court without previous experience on the bench. Stegall has been the governor’s chief counsel since 2011 and was a prosecutor in Jefferson County before that.
“I think our fellow Kansans, what they want and desire the most are not servants who put their primary loves and loyalties with a particular party, but instead to a particular place and our mutual home, our neighbors and the common good,” Stegall said.
Stegall was considered but not selected for two previous court vacancies.
He also has represented Brownback as a client and has testified in favor of the change in judicial appointments that the Legislature approved. He said Tuesday that the previous testimony was on behalf of his client, the governor, and declined to answer questions about his opinion on the process.
Stegall has also represented former Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline, he said during the hearing.
Representatives from the League of Women Voters and and Mainstream Coalition testified that they also were concerned with a lack of transparency in the new nominating process.
Sen. Pat Pettey, D-Kansas City, said the anti-abortion group Kansans for Life had called legislators in support of Stegall’s nomination.
When asked if he could be unbiased when groups like that are lobbying for him, Stegall said judges must put aside any prior bias.
“I have absolute confidence that I can do that,” he said.
Felita Kahrs, a Kansas Supreme Court nominating commission member who was appointed by Brownback in 2011, testified that she was in favor of Stegall’s nomination and that the old process was extremely politicized.
Kahrs said she was part of the group that had previously considered Stegall for a judicial role.
“It is my opinion that Caleb was one of the top candidates that appeared before the commission but due to politics, his name was not submitted,” she said.
Also Tuesday, the Senate standing committee on confirmation oversight approved five other Brownback appointees, forwarding the nominations to the Senate to consider Wednesday.
The only nominee who drew scrutiny was Joshua Ney, up for commissioner of the Kansas Securities Commission. Hensley asked Ney, who is interim commissioner, how he had spent his time while working for the commission and voiced concern about fewer criminal prosecutions by the commission in the past year.
The other nominees: James Clark, secretary of the Kansas Department of Administration; Ronald Mason, judge at the Court of Tax Appeals; Elizabeth King, member of the University of Kansas Hospital Authority; and Col. Robert Windham, brigadier general of the Kansas National Guard.
Contributing: Associated Press