Supreme Court Justice Stegall wary of judicial bias among ‘bourgeois, polite society’

Justice tells symposium decision-making process riddled by paradoxes

By: - November 16, 2021 7:29 am
Kansas Supreme Court Justice Caleb Stegall, back row second from left, said during a University of Kansas symposium that judicial decision-making bias most often reflected views of "upwardly mobile, middle-class, bourgeois and polite society." (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

Kansas Supreme Court Justice Caleb Stegall, back row second from left, said during a University of Kansas symposium that judicial decision-making bias most often reflected views of “upwardly mobile, middle-class, bourgeois and polite society.” (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas Supreme Court Justice Caleb Stegall said decision-making predicated on personal whims of judges represented a clear threat to the judicial system because it was typically exercised by people of the upper-middle, professional class that frequently filled law schools.

“The reality of subjective judicial decisions driven by the biases of judges is a perennial problem, because that bias is almost always exercised on behalf of the upwardly mobile, middle-class, bourgeois and polite society from which the majority of judges come and which most judges continue to live,” he said.

Stegall, appointed to the state’s highest court in 2014 by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, raised the issue Monday during the University of Kansas’ Law Review symposium on judicial conduct and misconduct.

Stegall, 50, graduated from Lawrence High School, Geneva College in Pennsylvania and KU’s law school. The political conservative had worked three years as Brownback’s general counsel when appointed by the governor to the Kansas Court of Appeals. He served on the state’s second-highest court for eight months until elevated to a vacancy on the state Supreme Court.

Stegall said many judges were dedicated to doing a good job in the decision-making process even without potential of those opinions being critiqued by a state’s disciplinary commission. Judges and justices are bound by an ethical code of conduct designed to advance public confidence in the integrity and competence of the legal system, but those rules don’t invade the independence of judicial decision-making.

He said it was important to acknowledge that, at least for conscientious judges, legal questions have an ethical dimension. The complexities, paradoxes and uncertain boundaries of legal decisions make it impractical for judges to plainly follow the law wherever it leads, he said.

“It is a bit more complicated than that,” Stegall said. “Mature common sense people of all stripes really know this intuitively. I do find it interesting, however, how uncomfortable it often makes us to admit as much.”

He said judges could be left in a quandary when laws or court rules lacked objective, measurable standards and required members of the judiciary to fill in the blanks.

“That’s when the subjective experiences of judges at least threaten to be brought forward in the decision of the court,” the justice said. “We know that a corrupt, a wicked or an incompetent judiciary is one of the surest paths to a lawless society.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

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