By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World
TOPEKA — The chairwoman of the judicial nominating commission that passed over Gov. Sam Brownback's chief counsel, Caleb Stegall, twice for vacancies on the Kansas Court of Appeals today denied that politics had anything to do with it.
"I can assure you that in my experience on the Supreme Court Nominating Commission that commission members typically have no idea of the applicants' current or past political affiliation," said Anne Burke.
Her comment was made in response to an allegation made by Felita Kahrs, another member of the commission, after Brownback nominated Stegall to the Court of Appeals on Tuesday.
Kahrs said in a letter to Brownback that Stegall's references and interviews were exemplary. "It is my opinion that Caleb was one of the top candidates that appeared before the Commission but due to politics, his name was not submitted," Kahrs wrote.
Kahrs, who was appointed to the nominating commission by Brownback, did not elaborate on the allegation, and attempts to reach her at her Washington, D.C- area job were not successful.
Stegall was overlooked by the nominating commission last year, but this year, at Brownback's behest, Republicans in the Legislature changed state law so that Brownback could make direct nominations to the Court of Appeals with Senate approval.
Prior to the change, the Supreme Court Nominating Commission took applications, screened and interviewed candidates for both the Kansas Court of Appeals and Kansas Supreme Court and then forwarded three names to the governor to pick from.
The nominating commission still exists to handle vacancies on the Kansas Supreme Court. Brownback has said he would like to change the Supreme Court selection process, as well, but that would require a change in the Kansas Constitution.
Burke said the commission may have known Stegall's political affiliation because of his employment on Brownback's staff, but added that Stegall's "political affiliation was never discussed during the interviews when he applied for two Court of Appeals judgeships. That includes both inside and out of the meetings. The goal of the Nominating Commissions, whether at the state or local levels, has been to nominate the most qualified person possible."
When Brownback announced Stegall, he said, "If confirmed, Caleb will be one of the most, if not the most qualified person to go on the Kanas Court of Appeals over the past several decades."
But Burke argued that the two persons ultimately picked by Brownback for those two vacancies that Stegall had sought to fill had many years' experience as sitting judges. Stegall, 41, has no experience as a judge.
The two that Brownback picked from nominees forwarded by the commission were Kim Schroeder, who had been a district court judge for 14 years, and Anthony Powell, who had been a leading conservative Republican legislator before serving as a district court judge for 10 years.