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SPOTLIGHT
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Judge Stegall

Published on -8/21/2013, 9:58 AM

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Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback leaves nothing to fate. When his chief counsel was passed over not once but twice last year for a spot on the Kansas Court of Appeals, the governor was not interested in seeing if the third time might be a charm. Similarly, Brownback was not willing to try, try again if at first he didn't succeed.

Instead, he simply changed the rules of the game. A compliant Legislature approved the plan to eliminate the role of a lawyer-dominated nominating commission and let the governor choose whomever he saw fit.

To nobody's surprise, Brownback's first judicial appointment to the appellate court is none other than Caleb Stegall -- the aforementioned chief counsel. The Kansas Senate will consider the nominee when the special legislative session convenes Sept. 3. Given the composition of the Legislature, Stegall likely will be donning the robes as that court's newest judge.

"I picked the most qualified person," Brownback said in describing the 41-year-old former Jefferson County attorney.

We'll likely never know that, as the governor has indicated no desire to disclose the names of the other applicants. Not that we would have expected many liberal lawyers or judges even to submit an inquiry to the extremely conservative Brownback. Most people wouldn't waste their time applying for a job they have zero chance of obtaining.

While the selection process is flawed, Stegall has the potential to be a good choice. Several prominent Kansas Democrats have publicly supported the selection, including former Attorney General Steve Six and Lawrence attorney Dan Watkins. The governor said House Minority Leader Paul Davis has described Stegall as "well-qualified" for the bench.

Davis' official reaction Tuesday didn't renounce that description, but definitely went in a different direction: "The Kansas judiciary should be a pillar of independence and transparency, not a parking lot for Gov. Brownback's well-connected, partisan pals," Davis said in a statement.

Stegall will be confirmed under that cloud, although he has the capacity to surprise. As a columnist for KansasLiberty.com, Stegall once wrote a piece praising Democrat Joan Finney as the most conservative governor in state history: "The lesson remains that power corrupts, and distributing that power as widely as possible is the only remotely satisfying response. How conservatives today wish for Finney's initiative and referendum to overthrow the growth of state power in our courts, at Cedar Crest, and in the statehouse!"

Time will tell whether Stegall attempts to minimize that power. In the Brownback administration, the three branches are becoming increasingly like-minded with the governor pulling the strings.

We will monitor closely whether Stegall follows his boss' bidding or legal principles. Key indicators will be cases involving school finance, abortion rights and the constitutionality of voting laws.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net

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