Gov. nominates top lawyer for Kansas appeals court

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback on Tuesday nominated his chief counsel for a judgeship on the state Court of Appeals, choosing a top adviser from 13 applicants in an appointment that could attract criticism from the governor's opponents.

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.

"I picked the most qualified person," Brownback said.

Stegall thanked his colleagues for their support, including several Democrats.

"Even though they have good faith disagreements on the matter of how we select our judiciary in Kansas, they have endorsed my nomination for this position because they know my record," he said, reading from prepared remarks. He took no questions from reporters.

Stegall is best known for his defense of four American missionaries who were detained in Haiti after they tried to remove 33 children who they believed had been orphaned in the devastating 2010 earthquake. It was later determined that the children had parents; Stegall's clients returned to the U.S. without facing charges. He has also represented conservative Republicans in legal tangles involving abortion. The Kansas Senate will consider the nomination during a special legislative session convening Sept. 3.

Stegall's ties to Brownback and other GOP conservatives are likely to generate criticism of his nomination among the governor's opponents. Nonetheless, Brownback's office released endorsement letters from a bipartisan group of lawyers, including former Kansas Attorney General Steve Six, a Democrat who faced Stegall in abortion-related litigation.

Brownback noted Stegall's successful representation of the four Baptist missionaries in Haiti, his strong academic record as a law student at the University of Kansas in the 1990s and his varied work experience afterward. Stegall was among 13 serious applicants for the judgeship.

The governor defended how Stegall was selected, saying the public has more of a voice now because two elected branches of government, which are accountable for their actions, are involved in the process. He said it would be up to legislators to decide if the Kansas Supreme Court, which still fills vacancies through a nominating commission, would remain the same.

Last year the nominating commission passed over Stegall for two vacancies on the Court of Appeals. When lawmakers created a 14th judgeship on the court this year, speculation immediately centered on Stegall as the leading candidate.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, had predicted Stegall would be nominated and suggested Brownback timed the special session to lessen scrutiny of the appointment -- a suggestion Brownback aides have labeled "ridiculous." Brownback called the session for lawmakers to fix a state law that allows convicted murders to be sentenced to at least 50 years in prison.

GOP conservatives hold a supermajority in the Senate, making it likely that Stegall will be confirmed.

Stegall, 41, who lives just outside Lawrence, became Brownback's chief counsel when the governor took office in January 2011. Stegall had spent the previous two years as Jefferson County's elected prosecutor.

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