Bench Memos

Governor Brownback’s Stellar Judicial Appointment

Kansas governor Sam Brownback has nominated his chief counsel, Caleb Stegall, to fill an opening on the Kansas Court of Appeals. The Kansas City Star reports:

Caleb Stegall is the first to be nominated as a judge in the state’s second-highest court under a law that took effect in July. Under the new system the governor names judges, subject to Senate confirmation. Previously a nominating commission led by lawyers screened applicants and named three finalists, with no role for lawmakers after the governor’s appointment.

The previous nominating commission system is better known as the “Missouri Plan,” a special-interest-driven judicial-selection process that lets trial lawyers pick their judges.

Stegall’s stellar resume means Governor Brownback’s opponents can’t poke holes in either his legal credentials or commitment to the rule of law. Stegall graduated third from his class at KU Law School, served for two years as Jefferson County’s Prosecuting Attorney, and started his own country law firm, one of the best law firms in Kansas. He also clerked for former Judge Tacha, then-chief of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, and was awarded the 2010 Kansas Pro Bono Certificate for his noted work in securing the release of four American missionaries who were wrongfully detained in Haiti.

Stegall has also been recommended by influential legal figures from all areas of the law, across the political spectrum. Here’s a sampling:

‐ Derek Schmidt, Kansas’s attorney general: “As the state’s chief law enforcement official, I believe strongly that having Mr. Stegall’s prosecution experience added to the Court of Appeals would further strengthen the Court and would benefit the administration of criminal justice in Kansas.”

‐ Steve Six, former Democratic attorney general and Obama-administration appellate judicial nominee: “Through my contact and experience with Caleb I believe he has the qualities, intelligence and demeanor to make a fine addition to the court.”

‐ Deanell Reece Tacha, retired chief judge from the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals and current dean of Pepperdine Law School: “Mr. Stegall was my law clerk . . . [He] was outstanding in all respects . . . He is measured and fair in every professional and personal endeavor in which I have observed him.

‐ Dennis D. Depew, president of the Kansas Bar Association: “In my dealings with Caleb in his current position, my experience has been that Caleb is willing to listen and consider all information and viewpoints that are presented . . . As you both know, I have had an interest in such a position myself. However, I have told Caleb that if he was interested I would support his pursued of such a position and not personally apply.”

Stegall’s recommendation from Felita Kahrs, a member of the Supreme Court Nominating Commission, highlights both his judicial qualifications and the political challenge he may face as a nominee. Ms. Kahrs previously reviewed Stegall’s application for the Kansas Court of Appeals, and her recommendation says that she found that his “outstanding academic background, his excellent writing ability, and the experience he brings to this position, exceeded and in some cases far surpassed the other applicants.” Even though she believed that he “was one of the top candidates that appeared before the Commission,” she explained, “due to politics, his name was not submitted.”

The liberal special interests fear Stegall’s intellect and commitment to the rule of law. On top of that, they’re now incensed that Governor Brownback has abandoned the “Missouri Plan” – the leading source of the leftward tilt in Kansas’s judiciary – in favor of a more balanced approach  As my JCN colleague Carrie Severino argued about critics of judicial-selection reform:

The bottom line is that critics, from Topeka to Washington, care very little about judicial independence or the proper role of courts in society. They are simply terrified by the fact that Kansas is part of a national trend away from their beloved method of judicial selection, the bar-dominated Missouri Plan. And, as the Journal aptly noted, hell hath no fury like a lawyer scorned.

Stegall’s endorsers demonstrate that Governor Brownback has selected a nominee of the highest caliber, a true “merit” selection, one could say. But don’t expect that to stop Brownback’s critics from raising hell in their unfounded attacks on Stegall’s character, intellect, and impartiality.

 

 

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