AP: Kansas panel's choices will spur debate on courts

11/16/2012

TOPEKA (AP) — A commission bypassed Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's top attorney and a prominent conservative judge in naming finalists for a Kansas Court of Appeals seat on Thursday, an announcement certain to inspire a legislative debate about the selection process.

TOPEKA (AP) — A commission bypassed Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's top attorney and a prominent conservative judge in naming finalists for a Kansas Court of Appeals seat on Thursday, an announcement certain to inspire a legislative debate about the selection process.

The statewide judicial nominating commission nominated a veteran western Kansas trial court judge, a Kansas City-area prosecutor and a Topeka attorney for the vacancy on the state's second-highest court.

Brownback has until Jan. 14 to choose one of the three for the vacancy on the state's second-highest court, or the decision will be made by the Kansas Supreme Court's chief justice.

The finalists — picked out of 20 applicants — are: Stevens County District Judge Kim Schroeder; Steven J. Obermeier, senior deputy district attorney in Johnson County; and Teresa Watson, a Topeka lawyer who's served as a research attorney for both of the state's appellate courts.

Brownback favorites Caleb Stegall, the governor's chief counsel and a former Jefferson County attorney, and Sedgwick County District Judge Tony Powell also applied for the vacancy. Powell was a leading spokesman for anti-abortion Republicans in the Kansas House before taking his judgeship in 2003.

Conservative Republican legislators, activists and their political allies have complained for years the commission is dominated by the lawyers who make up a majority of the panel tend to favor moderate and left-of-center attorneys with ties to the legal establishment. The 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 told The Associated Press that the process "tends to exclude others who are equally qualified because they don't fit the preferred political profile."

He said he's talked to many legislators who are interested in changing the selection process, making the issue a high priority when the Legislature convenes in January.

Commission Chairwoman Anne Burke, an Overland Park attorney, did not immediately return a telephone message seeking comment. Commission members typically don't comment publicly about their choices, but have said they generally ignore political considerations.

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, saying, "I haven't reviewed the whole list yet."

The governor has pushed unsuccessfully for changing state law to have the governor appoint Court of Appeals judges, subject to state Senate confirmation. Kinzer favors the idea but said some lawmakers want to push for the judges to be elected.

Schroeder, Obermeier and Watson are finalists for the position now held by appeals Judge Christel Marquardt, who plans to retire in January. There's a second vacancy on the 13-member court, created by the recent death of Chief Judge Richard Greene.

Schroeder has been a judge in Stevens County since 1999, appointed by then-Gov. Bill Graves, a moderate Republican, but has a 30-year legal career. Obermeier is a career prosecutor in Johnson County, having joined the district attorney's staff in 1985. Watson has been an attorney in private practice since 1994.

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