A commission bypassed Gov. Sam Brownback's top attorney and a prominent conservative judge in naming finalists for a Kansas Court of Appeals seat on Thursday.
The choices, which include a Johnson County prosecutor, are certain to inspire a legislative debate about the selection process.
The statewide judicial nominating commission picked these finalists from among 20 applicants: Steven J. Obermeier, senior deputy district attorney in Johnson County; Stevens County District Judge Kim Schroeder; and Teresa Watson, a Topeka lawyer who has served as a research attorney for both of the state's appellate courts.
Brownback has until Jan. 14 to choose one of the three, or the decision will be made by the Kansas Supreme Court's chief justice.
Also applying for the vacancy were two Brownback favorites: Caleb Stegall, the governor's chief counsel and a former Jefferson County attorney, and Sedgwick County District Judge Tony Powell. Before taking his judgeship in 2003, Powell was a leading spokesman for anti-abortion Republicans in the Kansas House.
Conservative Republican legislators, activists and their political allies have complained for years that the commission is dominated by lawyers who tend to favor moderate and left-of-center attorneys with ties to the legal establishment. The Kansas Legislature has no role in the selection of Court of Appeals judges and Supreme Court justices, and voters determine whether they stay on the bench.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lance Kinzer, an Olathe Republican, said the announcement again confirms that the selection process makes it "virtually impossible" for prominent conservatives like Powell and Stegall to be appointed to the appellate courts.
Kinzer said the process "tends to exclude others who are equally qualified because they don't fit the preferred political profile."
He said he has talked to many legislators who are interested in changing the selection process.
Defenders of the current selection process contend it removes politics from the equation.
"Certainly, the nominating commission does not systematically exclude any group of people," said Ron Keefover, a spokesman for the state's appellate courts. "No one focuses in on somebody's particular bent."
Brownback declined to comment Thursday.
The governor has pushed unsuccessfully for changing Kansas law to have the governor appoint Court of Appeals judges, subject to Senate confirmation. Kinzer favors the idea but said some lawmakers prefer the judges to be elected.