Politics & Government

Gov. Sam Brownback names former aide Caleb Stegall to Supreme Court

Caleb Stegall accepts his appointment to the Kansas Supreme Court.
Caleb Stegall accepts his appointment to the Kansas Supreme Court. The Wichita Eagle

Gov. Sam Brownback elevated his former chief counsel to a position on the Kansas Supreme Court on Friday.

After less than a year on the state’s court of appeals, Caleb Stegall will replace outgoing Justice Nancy Moritz, who has been chosen for a position on the federal court of appeals.

In making his first appointment to the Supreme Court, Brownback selected Stegall from three judges nominated by the bipartisan Supreme Court Nominating Commission earlier this month.

Democrats had predicted that Brownback would select Stegall. Brownback had pushed back against that assumption and told reporters earlier this month that Stegall had no inside track.

On Friday, the governor walked into the Old Supreme Court room in the Capitol with Stegall and his family in tow for the announcement, and joked to a reporter sitting in the front row, “You guessed right.”

Brownback praised Stegall as a “fiercely loyal Kansan” and said he was one of the most qualified people to ever be appointed to the high court.

“Caleb Stegall has an unflinching commitment to doing the right thing,” he said.

Eileen Hawley, the governor’s spokeswoman, said before the event that Brownback would not take reporters’ questions about his selection because it was “a matter of state as opposed to a media opportunity.” The appointment does not require state Senate confirmation.

When Brownback appointed Stegall to the court of appeals last year, Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, accused the governor of cronyism. Stegall’s writing for various conservative and religious publications was also scrutinized.

Stegall served as editor of The New Pantagruel, an online Christian magazine, which published an editorial stating that forcible resistance to the removal of Terri Schiavo from life support in 2005 would be justified.

“An individual who openly advocates ‘forcible resistance’ of a valid court order relying on ‘a higher law’ raises serious questions as to their qualification to be appointed to the second highest court in the state of Kansas,” Hensley said in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last year.

Stegall also has criticized a 2005 order by the Supreme Court to compel the Legislature put more money into schools as “reckless spending.”

In prepared remarks, Stegall promised to remain impartial on the state’s highest court.

“I will strive every day to labor under no compulsion other than that ever present to follow the law rather than my personal opinion,” Stegall said, paraphrasing an opinion from Moritz, the justice he will replace.

Stegall said he was humbled by the appointment and that he looked forward to going to work “devoted to our democracy’s promise of a fair, impartial and independent judiciary that is committed to the rule of law.”

Before becoming the governor’s chief counsel, Stegall worked under former Attorney General Phill Kline and as counsel for the influential conservative group Americans for Prosperity, which was founded by the Koch family.

AFP’s state director, Jeff Glendening, thanked Brownback for appointing Stegall in a statement. “Caleb has a brilliant legal mind which is grounded in reality and Constitutional principles,” Glendening said.

Stegall also served as the elected county attorney in Jefferson County from 2009 to 2011.

He earned his law degree from the University of Kansas School of Law in 1999, ranking third in a class of 187.

Two other nominees

Also in the running for the appointment were Judge Karen Arnold-Burger, who has served on the court of appeals since 2011 after 20 years as a municipal judge, and Judge Merlin Wheeler, a district court judge since 1990 and chief judge of the 5th Circuit for Lyon and Chase counties since 1997.

Brownback interviewed the nominees. He said he was looking for someone with experience, a solid intellect and judicial temperament.

House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, who will face Brownback in the gubernatorial election in November, criticized the selection of Stegall over the other nominees.

“Once again, Sam Brownback put his own political agenda before the best interests of Kansans. 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.

Ryan Wright, executive director of the Kansas Values Institute, which backs Davis’ gubernatorial run, called the appointment the “last gasp of a failed governor who knows his time in office is coming to an end.” He questioned Stegall’s ability to be impartial.

Hawley said before the announcement that if Democrats criticized the selection they would be criticizing a process they have supported in the past, as the three nominees were sent to Brownback by the bipartisan commission.

Brownback emphasized that the commission recognized Stegall’s capabilities. He rattled off a list of Stegall’s accomplishments and experience, including work as a prosecutor and private practice attorney. Brownback also touted Stegall’s writing prowess.

“That’s what you want on the Kansas Supreme Court. Somebody that’s wise. Somebody that’s brilliant. Somebody that can write. Somebody that can perform and do the things that Caleb Stegall can and wants to do those for the people of the state of Kansas,” Brownback said. “He’s going to be an excellent judge, an excellent justice, for the people of the state of Kansas.”

‘A breadth of experience’

Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, an attorney who presided over Stegall’s confirmation hearings last year, said that the new justice has repeatedly proven he can be objective when it comes to the law.

“The thought that Justice Stegall will be biased in some fashion or a judicial activist has no basis at all,” King said. “I think what we’re seeing is blatant partisanship trying to gain political points rather than a careful, dispassionate review of Justice Stegall’s career.”

Justices can serve until they are 75. So Stegall, at 42, could conceivably serve on the state’s Supreme Court for more than 30 years. His appointment also opens up a spot on the court of appeals for Brownback to fill.

King said Stegall’s youth will be an asset to the court, as will his perspective as a former county attorney and prosecutor.

“Most of the cases before the Kansas Supreme Court are criminal, and having that perspective of a very recent prosecutor on the Supreme Court bench will be extremely valuable,” King said.

Stegall declined to answer a question about whether he thought the court has moved too slowly in handling death penalty appeal cases, which some conservatives have charged.

King said Stegall’s work in the executive branch also gives him a unique skill set.

“He brings a breadth of experience, almost unparalleled, to the Kansas Supreme Court,” King said. “It’s incredible diversity of experience.”

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.