Justice Caleb Stegall donned his black robe and ascended the steps to his seat on the bench of the Kansas Supreme Court for the first time Friday as he took his oath of office.
Gov. Sam Brownback chose Stegall, his chief legal counsel, as his first appointee to the high court over two other nominees in August. He had named Stegall to the Kansas Court of Appeals in 2013.
Some Democrats accused Brownback of cronyism, but the governor and other Republicans say Stegall has strong credentials.
Stegall referenced the controversy by reading a passage from William Allen White’s famous 1896 essay “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” In it, White called then Kansas Supreme Court Justice Frank Doster “a shabby, wild-eyed, rattled-brain fanatic.”
“I have to confess since reading that I have mostly stopped complaining about what the press says about me,” Stegall said, eliciting a roar of laughter from the audience, which included his family, Brownback, several Republican luminaries and some of his former teachers.
Stegall referenced Doster to “demonstrate that Kansas and Kansas jurists have long been at the center of our national conversation about the rule of law.”
“It’s both deeply humbling and a very, very great privilege for me to take my turn as a participant in that conversation as a member of this great institution,” he said.
Stegall replaces Justice Nancy Moritz, who left the court to accept a position with the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Brownback has repeatedly highlighted Stegall’s experience as district attorney for Jefferson County from 2009 to 2011, saying he would give the court a needed perspective in death penalty cases. Many people have expressed outrage over the court’s decision to overturn death sentences for convicted killers Reginald and Jonathan Carr.
Stegall also worked for former Attorney General Phill Kline and as legal counsel for Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group with ties to Wichita-based Koch Industries.
At 43, Stegall will be the youngest member of the Supreme Court and could be primed for a long career on the bench. The age limit for justices is 75.
On Friday, Brownback called Stegall’s appointment one of his most important acts during his first term as governor.
“It has a long life to it,” Brownback said. “I think these (appointments) are really important and I spent a lot of time and effort to try and get them as high quality of an individual to be a jurist as possible.”
Asked whether he appointed Stegall in order to push the Supreme Court to the right, Brownback did not answer directly. “He’s very capable. Extraordinarily qualified individual. And as I said when I announced it, I’d put his qualifications and abilities against anybody’s,” he said.
Some Democrats have questioned Stegall’s ability to be impartial on the bench. In a 2009 post on the conservative website Front Porch Republic, he said he had “the experience of staring down (and defeating more often than not) our real enemies from the abortion industry to trumped-up bureaucrats to meddling school districts to vendetta-wielding functionaries to dim-witted city hall.”
In August, Stegall promised that he would strive to “follow the law rather than my personal opinion” and that he would be “devoted to our democracy’s promise of a fair, impartial and independent judiciary that is committed to the rule of law.”
Money for schools
Stegall criticized the Supreme Court’s 2005 decision to compel the Legislature to appropriate more money for schools in a 2009 report for the Kansas Policy Institute, a conservative think tank based in Wichita. He contended “the Kansas Supreme Court usurped the constitutional powers of the Legislature to control the purse, and by so doing, violated the separation of powers necessary to preserve Kansas’s republican form of government.”
As the governor’s counsel, he also helped represent the state in an unsuccessful mediation in the school finance case in 2013, said John Robb, the attorney for Schools for Fair Funding, the group suing for increased money for schools.
Robb said Stegall should recuse himself if the case goes before the Supreme Court again, which is likely after a three-judge panel rules on the adequacy of state funding soon.
“I think he certainly should. He was a lawyer in the case. He participated in the case as an advocate for the state of Kansas and I think it’s extremely clear that if you have been an advocate in a case you can’t later judge the same case,” Robb said in a phone call.
When asked Friday, Stegall declined to say whether he planned to recuse himself in the case. “I’m not going to comment on any court business today,” he said. “I’m just going to enjoy this day.”
Stegall was presented to the court by Judge Eric Melgren, a federal judge who mentored him early in his legal career when they both worked at the Foulson Siefkin law firm in Wichita.
Melgren repeatedly called Stegall brilliant but also praised his humility, which he said was a result of Stegall’s Christian faith.
“Because Caleb is devoted to the one so much greater than he, he is unaffected by delusions regarding his own greatness,” Melgren said.
Stegall declined to answer questions about his faith, which also was repeatedly mentioned by Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Rask, a friend of Stegall’s who spoke at the ceremony.
Stegall has written widely on the topic of religion. In 2005 as editor of The New Pantagruel, an online Christian magazine, Stegall published an editorial urging forcible resistance against a Florida court order to remove Terri Schiavo from life support.
This and other writings were cited by Democrats as proof Stegall would be incapable of impartiality on the bench when Brownback named him to the Court of Appeals.
“I never felt like he had the experience or judicial philosophy that he was going to be impartial,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka. “I think it’s just, you know, a case of putting one of your cronies in a judgeship.”
Brandi Fisher, executive director of the Mainstream Coalition, a group that advocates for the separation of church and state, said Stegall’s past writings were a concern. “I just hope that he will be able to keep his personal opinions separate from his judicial opinions,” she said.
Melgren praised Stegall’s even-handedness as both an attorney and judge, saying he was committed to looking at all sides of an issue before reaching a conclusion.
“One measure of a good judge may be how many decisions has he authored with which he did not personally agree … that despite the fact that he might have preferred a different law, as a judge he follows the law as enacted and faithfully executes it,” Melgren said.
“And can there be any doubt that Caleb will be such a judge?” he added.