On Friday, Caleb Stegall–lawyer, farmer, family man, rabble-rouser, and long-time Front Porcher—was appointed to the Kansas Supreme Court by Governor Sam Brownback. The criticisms of Stegall’s appointment are many–he’s been called a crony, been called unqualified, been called an extremist. I can’t speak for the first two–though my familiarity with his writings and his personality lead me to sincerely doubt their truth–but I’m fairly certain the third is true. And I have to say, that’s partly why I consider his appointment good news.
Of course, to be honest, if my electoral wishes had come true Stegall’s appointment would never have happened. I spent much of the past six months hoping that–and knocking doors and contributing money so that–Brownback (a decent man who, to my mind, foolishly embraces many profoundly bad, simply incoherent, or just plain irresponsible ideas) would lose his re-election race. The fact that he won is, I’m quite convinced, bad news for Caleb’s and my state. Caleb no doubt disagrees with me on this point–which is, itself, kind of the point as well. Caleb and I have been disagreeing for a long time, and the level and form of those disagreements have sometimes been, well, extreme. And to be able to civilly discuss and disagree about such fundamentally important things means something rather crucial: that you both see what the fundamental grounds upon which and over which one must struggle really are. To be able to fight intellectually with someone who shares your passion for the essential things is a far more rewarding experience, I think, than happening to learn that some stock figure from Republican or Democratic Central Casting overlaps with your opinions occasionally. (No doubt I agree with President Obama more often than Caleb does, and he agrees more often with Senator Mitch McConnell than I do. Oooh, yee-haw.)
Caleb and I, honestly, haven’t done much fighting lately; since moving into the Brownback administration as an in-house counsel in 2011, he’s kept a low profile when it comes to online debates. And between us, it’s always been online; we’ve only met once, when we hung out and talked late at a restaurant here in Wichita one night way back in 2008. But from 2005 until 2010, Caleb and I–beginning when I stumbled upon his fine, much-missed publication The New Pantagruel, and then continuing through Front Porch Republic–found ourselves somewhat regularly arguing about what localism and populism can possibly mean. We fought over shopping at Wal-Mart, buying local food, health care reform, farm policy, the meaning of liberty, and much more. I’m sure I wasn’t anywhere near Caleb’s most frequent or fond antagonist, and he wasn’t mine, but speaking just for myself I valued those arguments deeply, because I learned from them. While his local populism–which might be best described as a kind of Jeffersonian individualism–never converted me, his ideas were essential to getting me to think more carefully about my communitarian convictions, helping me to see both the conservative and the Laschian elements which have to be a part of any effort to bring both populist egalitarianism and local community together. And you can’t have such an thoughtful, demanding, but also civil relationship with someone, and not wish them well. (Given that Caleb actually complimented me when I finally stopped playing the ivory tower socialist on the sidelines and started indulging in activism, how could not?) The bottom line is this: if I’m going to have to deal with a governor who clearly wishes to remake the judicial branch entirely, how can I object to him making a prominent part of that branch an extremist whom I happen to trust?
There are, of course, good extremisms and bad, and part of the whole reason of a free society is so that clashes of extremism can be expressed without trashing everything both interlocutors hold dear. And that’s the key point with Caleb–while I have plenty of reason to assume that I will generally dislike whatever judicial opinions he hands down, as he would very likely generally dislike mine if we traded places, we both hold the same thing dear: Kansas. Our place, our community, our peoplehood, our demos. There are many lawyers who get sucked into a kind of romance of the law: maybe they see it as some kind of Platonic-constitutional philosophical ideal, or as an aristocratic necessity to hold in the unwashed masses, or as embodying a serene technocratic-pragmatism, but however they view it “THE LAW” becomes their paean to something higher than, or better than, the people themselves and the cultures they build. The man that I interacted with, the man that helped to build Front Porch Republic, whatever else he believed, could never, I think, see the law as anything other than just one other attempt among many to organize and protect the manifold possibilities and struggles of human existence. That is, Caleb, as a member of the Kansas Supreme Court, may not be able to–and may not want to–engage in deep, revolutionary thoughts about building local communities and conservative Christian polities, but I can’t believe he would forget the very human thrill of trying to figure out how such a thing might be done, or if one might even want to. That’s a profound humility, a dispositional–if not philosophical–liberality which will keep him, I hope and I trust, far from the temptation to see the law as a sovereign foundation for his (or my!) preferred political project.
Of course, power corrupts; Caleb would be one of the first to remind me of that as well, I suspect. So we here in Kansas will have to watch him, as we need to watch all our top judges, because fortunately, we voters here are Jeffersonian enough that we retain the power to kick them out (though not, perhaps unfortunately, so Jeffersonian that we can elect them in the first place). Party politics being what they are, though, I suspect his position is secure. And while politically I’d much rather a state government in Topeka quite different than the one we have, given what we do have I really can’t disagree with this turn of events one bit. Kudos, Caleb!