To most Utahns, the state's trial court judges appear to be paid reasonably well - an average of $70,200 a year. But that's only 32nd in the nation, is far less than federal judges in Utah make, and often is considerably less than what lawyers earn who appear before those same judges. Even some elected city and county attorneys have a bigger paycheck.
The problem is that under these circumstances, it becomes increasingly difficult to appoint the best, most qualified people to judgeships.When a vacancy occurs, the judicial system needs to have the seat filled from among the most capable, talented, ethical, experienced, strongest lawyers in the state. Yet those kind of people are usually making two or three times a judge's salary - hardly an inducement to accept an appointment to the bench.
In fact, some judges reportedly are planning to resign their judgeships and return to private practice, simply because of the financial disparity.
If this kind of situation persists, the quality of replacement judges surely will decline and Utah's system of justice will suffer.
Two years ago, the picture was even more dismal. The State Executive and Judicial Compensation Commission and the Judicial Council Ad Hoc Citizens Committee recommended some significant pay hikes. Unfortunately, the Legislature only approved half of what was urged. This helped, but it left a lot still to be done.
Another crisis is in the making. In the next two to three years, about 25 judgeships will have to be filled due to retirements, judges going back to private practice, and new positions. This is one-fourth of the state trial court judicial system.
If the pay doesn't get any better, Utah may be reduced to appointing a significant portion of its state judgeships from lesser-qualified applicants, including some just a few years out of law school. This would be a serious blow to the judiciary. Considering that judges serve an average of 17-20 years, the impact would last for a generation.
Federal judges in the Utah district earn $45,000 to $55,000 more than their state counterparts. When a federal vacancy occurs, all of the approved applicants come from the top of Utah's legal profession.
Of course, Utah state trial judges will never earn what their federal cousins make. The Judicial Compensation Commission wants to raise state judges to $80,000, about a $10,000 increase. This would take just under $1 million, a reasonably small sum considering what is at stake in the judicial system.
Lawyers who don the robes of a judge usually do so as a public service. They know it involves financial sacrifice and that they will never make as much as they did in private practice. But the pay scale should not be demeaning, at the bottom of the judicial system in Utah.
The Legislature faces some tough budget choices as revenue projections are falling slightly short of expectation. Needs are great for education and human services. But the pay scale investment for judges made now will affect the judicial system for decades, especially in light of those upcoming 25 vacancies. And in a negative sense, so will any delay. Some things just cannot be done cheaply. And getting outstanding judges is one of them.