Speculation is building over who will replace U.S. District Judge Michael Davis, days after he disclosed he is stepping down this summer to become a senior judge.

Early names floated have focused on minority and female candidates in the wake of Davis' letter this week to Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, which pressed for continuing diversity on the federal bench.

The senators already have created a selection committee co-chaired by former U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger and attorney R. Ann Huntrods. Those wishing to be considered for the position have until Jan. 9 to submit a letter and résumé.

The committee will forward a recommendation. As the senior senator, Klobuchar will then make a recommendation to President Obama, who will nominate the person after background checks are conducted. The nominee must be approved by the U.S. Senate.

Davis, the only black federal judge in Minnesota history, will step down as chief federal judge in Minnesota on July 1 and as a district judge in August, and will assume senior judge status, allowing him to continue to work part time or full time.

Associate Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Wilhelmina Wright is likely to be one of the finalists if she chooses to seek the nomination, according to numerous sources contacted by the Star Tribune.

Wright, who is black and Yale- and Harvard-educated, has been an assistant U.S. attorney, district judge in Ramsey County and a state appeals court judge.

"I would think she would be on a very short list," said Eric Janus, president of William Mitchell College of Law. "She is very smart and has a very, very judicial demeanor. She's got an approach to her work that is very suited to being a judge. She has good experience in the judiciary, having served at all levels in the Minnesota courts."

Wright, 50, was named to the state district court by former Gov. Jesse Ventura, who also elevated her to the Court of Appeals before Gov. Dayton nominated her to the state Supreme Court. She previously sought a federal judgeship that eventually went to U.S. District Judge Susan Nelson in 2010.

Wright is considered a moderate, which could help get her approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and U.S. Senate, which are now controlled by the Republicans. She could not be reached for comment.

Another name mentioned is Lucinda E. Jesson, state commissioner of Human Services. Jesson, who is white, was Klobuchar's chief deputy when she was Hennepin County attorney. Jesson also was a deputy attorney general.

"She's off-the-charts smart," said Joseph Daly, professor emeritus of law at Hamline University. "She is an extremely capable person."

Asked if she was a candidate, Jesson said through a spokeswoman, "As commissioner of Human Services, I have a fulfilling job that I am very committed to."

While nothing is certain, some court observers said Klobuchar and Franken would be hard-pressed to allow a return to a federal bench where all full-time judges were white.

"The court system is an expression of our democratic values, our inclusive values, and we ought to work hard to make it an expression of the diversity in our society," Janus said.

Other candidates

Another possible candidate is former U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones, 57, who is now director of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Asked if he would consider the federal judgeship, Jones, who is black, said Friday, "It's always a possibility. I am not prepared to say I am or am not interested."

Jones faced major Republican opposition in the Judiciary Committee and Senate when he was nominated to head the ATF.

Other possible candidates mentioned include U.S. Magistrate Judge Tony Leung; Appeals Court judges Natalie Hudson, Denise Riley and Margaret Chutich; State District judges Todd Barnette and Lyonel Norris; state Supreme Court Justice David Lillehaug; U.S. Attorney Andy Luger and attorneys Jerry Blackwell and Brian Melendez.

Melendez said he would not rule it out if he were approached, but "I agree with Judge Davis' views about the importance of diversity in the federal judiciary, and there are some very talented lawyers in Minnesota who can help us achieve that goal better than I would."

A source close to Luger said he is happy as U.S. attorney "and he does not have an interest in becoming a member of the bench."

Lillehaug ruled himself out, saying he anticipates staying at the Minnesota Supreme Court until his retirement.

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224

Twitter: @randyfurst