Amidst a growing debate over the role Kenya's judges will play under the new constitution, U.S. Ambassador Michael Ranneberger warns that independent and thorough vetting of the judiciary will be crucial to the legitimacy of the new laws.

A rift is emerging between Kenya's civil society and its judges over the makeup of the country's judiciary under the new constitution. Many of Kenya's top judges are vying for the position of Chief Justice, but lawyer advocacy groups say those currently holding office should not be considered.

Under Kenya's new constitution, all judges and magistrates must be vetted by an independent board before taking office. But sitting judges have not been vetted by the board, to be formed in December, which advocacy groups argue disqualifies them for the position.

Stepping delicately into the fray Thursday, United States Ambassador to Kenya Michael Ranneberger said the vetting process was critically important to the legitimacy of the chief justice and the judiciary as a whole.

"The new chief justice is going to be one of the most important positions in the country," Ranneberger says, "It is critically important that a person of the highest competence, of independence and of good repute be put in that position. I do not want to rule anyone out or in, but clearly their needs to be a selection process that's transparent. And where the best possible person in chosen; a person who will truly strive to make the judiciary corruption free and independent."

The dispute was set off on Friday, with the publication of the Judicial Service Bill. The bill essentially re-engineers the branch to conform to the new constitution, and to operate more efficiently and independently.

Chief among the reforms is the strengthened roll of Kenya's Chief Justice, who will head the newly created Supreme Court. The new constitution requires current Chief Justice Evan Gicheru to leave office by late February.

Shortly after the bill's publication, the Law Society of Kenya, the International Commission of Jurists-Kenya and the Federation of Women Lawyers-Kenya announced they would compile a list of judges and magistrates who they believe should not hold the post.  The groups argued that anyone appointed to replace Justice Gicheru was not likely to be vetted in time.  Because Kenyans had lost faith in the current Judiciary, the group argued current judges could not credibly take up the post.

A statement from the Kenya Magistrates and Judges Association said excluding judges would violate their basic rights and called for equal treatment regarding the position.

Reforms to Kenya's judicial branch are held as among the most critical components of the country's new constitution. The judiciary is notoriously corrupt and inefficient and some estimate the court backlog at more than 800,000 cases.