By JOHN HANNA
AP Political Writer
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- A key Republican legislator promised Wednesday that GOP Gov. Sam Brownback's next appointee to the Kansas Court of Appeals will be thoroughly vetted during a special legislative session even if the appointment comes only days before the Senate begins considering the nomination.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff King dismissed criticism from Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley -- that the new judge's appointment could escape public scrutiny -- as "patently absurd." But Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, was skeptical of the assurances from King, an Independence Republican, and said senators won't have enough time to examine the nominee's record.
Brownback took applications for a newly created position on the state's second-highest court until Wednesday, and he has until Aug. 29 to name the new judge. The special session of the Republican-dominated Legislature is set to convene Sept. 3, and Brownback and other GOP leaders have said they want it to last only a few days.
The governor called the special session to rewrite a state law allowing judges to sentence convicted murderers to at least 50 years in prison, following a U.S. Supreme Court decision last month raising questions about the statute's constitutionality. But with lawmakers in session, the Senate will be legally required to consider pending appointments that otherwise would wait until the next regular session begins in January.
King said he convene the Judiciary Committee on the special session's first day for a confirmation hearing on the new Court of Appeals judge and take "as much time as we need." He said he's confident that as soon as the appointment is announced, lawmakers from both parties will begin immediately to examine the nominee's past.
"This will probably be the most thorough confirmation hearing the state has seen in recent memory, as it should be," King said. "There is absolutely nothing to the allegations that this nomination will be snuck through in any fashion."
The Court of Appeals appointment is receiving an unusual amount of attention because it's the first under a new law allowing the governor to name the court's judges, subject to Senate confirmation. Under the old system, still in place for the Kansas Supreme Court, a nominating commission screened applicants and named three finalists, with no role for lawmakers after the governor's appointment.
Hensley said he expects Brownback to nominate Caleb Stegall, his chief counsel. Stegall's name circulated as a leading candidate even before the selection process changed in July.
Stegall wouldn't comment Wednesday, but he applied for two previous Court of Appeals vacancies. Even some of Brownback's detractors saw Stegall's credentials as a former county prosecutor and lawyer in private practice as more than solid enough for the court, but each time, the nominating commission passed over him in favor of other finalists.
"People do need time to be able to vet, in their own mind and on the record, the qualifications of this nominee," Hensley said, suggesting that the Republicans' supermajority on the Judiciary Committee and in the Senate make it likely that Brownback won't have trouble getting the new judge confirmed.
Brownback has no timetable for interviewing candidates and hasn't set a date for announcing his nominee, spokeswoman Eileen Hawley said. His office isn't releasing the names of candidates, with Brownback arguing it would discourage some qualified candidates from coming forward.
"That's consistent with any personnel decision," Hawley said.
Supporters of the new system for selecting Court of Appeals judges argue that it is more accountable because senators elected by the general public will review the appointment and their deliberations are open. A majority of the nominating commission's members are attorneys elected by other attorneys and, though candidate interviews are public, its discussion of potential finalists is not.
But opponents of the change contend the old system was far less political, and they've strongly criticized Brownback for refusing to disclose the names of applicants -- something the nominating commission has done for more than 30 years.
Brownback's office: https://governor.ks.gov/
Kansas Court of Appeals: http://bit.ly/13nYLxw
Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org
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