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Kansas Senate confirms court appointment

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- Gov. Sam Brownback's chief counsel won Kansas Senate confirmation Wednesday as a state Court of Appeals judge in a lopsided vote that capped an intense public debate focusing more on the selection process than on the nominee's past.

The Senate's vote on Caleb Stegall's nomination was 32-8. The outcome was never really in doubt because Brownback's fellow conservative Republicans have a supermajority in the Senate, and none of them publicly expressed misgivings about his appointment to the state's second-highest court.

The 41-year-old Stegall will be the youngest member of the Court of Appeals or Kansas Supreme Court by about a decade. Brownback's critics expect Stegall to be a reliably conservative voice on the bench, but he pledged during a Senate Confirmation Committee hearing to remain impartial and received strong written endorsements from a bipartisan group of prominent attorneys.

While Stegall faced questions about past commentaries on political and social issues such as abortion and education funding, even Brownback critics said he is qualified to serve on the Court of Appeals. However, some of them saw Brownback's appointment as political cronyism and criticized the governor for refusing to disclose the name of other candidates.

The appointment was the first under a law that took effect in July, changing the selection process for Court of Appeals judges. Under the old system, still in place for the Supreme Court, a nominating commission led by attorneys screened applicants and named three finalists, with no role for lawmakers after the governor's appointment. Now, the governor makes the appointment, subject to Senate confirmation, with no role for the nominating commission.

Stegall applied last year for the Court of Appeals when it had two vacancies, and each time, the nominating commission passed him over as a potential finalist. Brownback advocated changing the selection process, and legislators funded a 14th seat on the Court of Appeals this year.

Supporters of the new selection system view it as more accountable because the Senate's deliberations are open. The governor's critics contend the new process is more political. Also, the nominating commission previously released the names of all candidates and held public interviews, though its discussions occurred in private.

Stegall, who lives outside Lawrence, served as Jefferson County's elected prosecutor for two years before joining Brownback's staff when the governor took office in January 2011.

As an attorney in private practice, he was 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. One of those clients, Topeka youth pastor Drew Culberth, praised him during the confirmation hearing.

Stegall also described himself as "an armchair sociologist," submitting more than 300 pages of documents that included online columns and even book reviews he'd written. Some of his writings promoted sustainable local communities.

He also included a 51-page analysis on education funding he wrote in 2009, concluding that Kansas Supreme Court decisions forcing higher spending were an "exercise of raw power" asserting "unfounded authority." In the transcript of an online chat in 2008, he called the U.S. Supreme Court's historic 1973 ruling legalizing abortion across the nation a "weak decision."

Stegall faced questions about an editorial in 2005 in an online magazine he edited that encouraged "forcible resistance" to state and federal court orders that cut off life support for Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged Florida woman. He said the magazine was only advocating civil disobedience.

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Online:

Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org

Kansas Court of Appeals: http://bit.ly/13nYLxw

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at www.twitter.com/apjdhanna