Tribune News Service

Criminal justice and the murderous Carr brothers took center stage in the final debate in the race between Gov. Sam Brownback and House Minority Leader Paul Davis.

Brownback opened the debate with criticism of the Kansas Supreme Court over its decision to set aside death sentences for Jonathan and Reginald Carr, two brothers who killed five people in Wichita over the course of a one-week spree of robbery, murder and rape in December 2000.

The court recently ruled that errors in the penalty phase of the trial rendered the death sentence unconstitutional.

"The Kansas Supreme Court is a very liberal court. Paul Davis wants to continue to appoint liberal judges to that court," Brownback said. "I want to appoint judges who will interpret the law, not rewrite it as they choose to see it."

Davis closed the debate blasting Brownback for a new TV campaign ad seeking to link Davis to the justices who made the Carr decision.

Davis said he knew one of the Carr brothers' victims personally and that the ad was a new low for the Brownback campaign.

He said he knew victim Brad Heyka from when they played competitive golf as young men.

"I knew Gov. Brownback would run an ugly campaign of personal attacks, but I didn't think the ads could get any sleazier (until) I turned on my television this morning," Davis said. "Governor, you trying to exploit that terrible tragedy to help get elected is disgraceful. And you ought to be ashamed."

Some conservative groups and some friends and family members of the victims are organizing a push to remove two justices -- Lee Johnson and Eric Rosen -- who are on the ballot for retention in the Nov. 4 election.

Brownback said immediately after the debate that he was not taking a position on their retention.

But about an hour later his campaign sent an e-mail saying the governor supports the effort to remove the justices.

The underlying issue is how Supreme Court justices will be selected in the future.

Brownback favors the so-called federal model in which the governor would choose judges with confirmation by the state Senate.

Davis supports the current "merit system," in which a panel of lawyers elected by the Kansas Bar and lay persons appointed by the governor send three nominees to the governor, who has to choose one of the three.

State appeals court judges were selected on the merit system until Brownback and the Legislature changed that to the federal system last year.

Since then, Brownback appointed his own office attorney, Caleb Stegall, first to the appeals court and then less than a year later to the Supreme Court.

In the debate, Brownback said "I want a judge to be an umpire, not a baseball player in the game."

After the debate, Davis said he thinks the merit system is better because it acts as a check on a governor's authority to pack the Supreme court with like-minded ideologically driven judges.

"I don't agree with some of the decisions" the Supreme Court has made, Davis said.

But he added "I don't think the governor needs more power" over judicial selection.