"If you were going in for heart surgery, would you turn to the surgeon who put in the lowest bid?" asks a former judge who left the bench over the salary issue.
If lawmakers do not support proposed increases in judges' salaries this session, those who enter Utah's courtrooms will soon be subject to what former 3rd District Judge Philip R. Fishler calls "lowest bid justice."Those lawmakers who oppose the increase generally think judges deserve more compensation but question the wisdom of a 25 percent increase.
The judiciary is asking the 1989 Legislature to increase the salary of Utah Supreme Court justices from $64,000 to $80,000, district judges from $57,000 to $72,000 and circuit judges from $54,400 to $68,000.
Sen. Arnold Christensen, R-Sandy, told the Deseret News Wednesday that he will support a 9 percent increase in judges' salaries. But "25 percent is out of bounds with the current financial shape of the state."
"I hear that we're not paying enough the attract good judges, good professors, good teachers, good public employees. The bottom line is that we only have so much money and we have to treat everyone equitably," he said.
Because judges make some of the toughest decisions facing mankind, those empowered to make such sobering decisions should be the brightest, most experienced and ethical lawyers in the state, contend Fishler and attorney Robert S. Campbell.
Fishler says the 25 percent increase seems substantial because current salaries are "so far out of line." Utah pays its judges nearly 20 percent less than the national average. A Supreme Court justice receives significantly less than the University of Utah president who earns $99,000.
Experienced attorneys are not applying for vacancies on the bench because they can't afford to give up their private practices, said Fishler. "Attorneys don't expect to receive the same salary level when they take the bench. They expect sacrifice. But the salary level presently offered is demeaning."
Many government prosecutors who argue cases before judges receive more in salary than the judges making the rulings.
Recently, the judiciary had to reannounce bench vacancies to attract even the minimum number of applicants. Instead of attracting the best and the brightest lawyers, many applicants were those who were unable to succeed in private practice, Fishler said.
When Fishler was on the bench, he presided over a child abuse case in which the defendant was found guilty. On the day of sentencing, the man shot himself.
"That's not the kind of situation you want to throw at inexperienced attorney into. You need someone who is experienced enough to make wise decisions and handle the pressures of the job."
Campbell warns that the salary issue has reach a state of crisis.
As a participant on a governor-appointed commission that strongly recommends the salary increases, Campbell is alarmed by the poor quality of lawyers applying for judgeships.
A principal test of the quality of applicants is measured by the highly reputable Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory. This annual publication evaluates attorneys by a nationally recognized system.
The commission found it disturbing that only 2 percent of those attorneys applying for openings on the state bench are highly rated, while 70 percent of those applying for federal judgeships receive top ratings. Federal judges receive $89,500 compared with a Utah Supreme Court justice salary of $64,000.
"Our state's judiciary simply is not attracting the caliber of attorney required to carry out the difficult task of being a judge," said Campbell.
When an inexperienced judge makes bad decision, all society suffers, said Campbell.