In an urgent message to legislators, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he is "appalled" by the low salaries Utah judges receive and urged lawmakers to increase salaries to prevent "potential tragedy."

Hatch, the ranking Republican member of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, said Utahns should be embarrassed that Utah's judges are among the lowest paid in the nation. Utah ranks 46th in the state judicial salary structure.While lawmakers generally agree that judges should be paid more, the proposal to increase salaries by 25 percent faces opposition by legislators who think the increase is too steep. Opponents argue that it is difficult to justify such a substantial increase when teachers, public employees and professors are also seeking raises.

In a letter circulated to lawmakers Thursday, Hatch said, "How can we live with that and expect to attract investment, new businesses, increased tourism and important opportunities for growth and expansion when we are satisfied with what will turn out to be a deficient judiciary? Our future demands more. Our cherished freedoms require more.

"We cannot maintain a truly just and fair society without doing all within our power to sustain the best judiciary in the country."

The brightest, most competent and ethical law graduates in almost every major state start at salaries greater than those we pay our state judges, he said.

He urged legislators to approve the following increases recommended by an independent citizen's committee and supported by the governor: 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.

Judicial salaries will never keep pace with those experienced attorneys who practice and appear before these judges. Judges are expected to be professionally committed public servants who are willing to make some sacrifices in the best interests of the public. But if Utahns are unwilling to pay judges fairly, the state will suffer the inevitable difficulties that come from a "weakened and substandard" judiciary, Hatch said.

Federal district court judges who make $89,500 per year are beginning to leave the bench in droves because they are tired of "the lack of consideration from the public."

"Can you imagine how bad our state judges, who make considerably less, feel?"

Hatch said Utah is on the verge of losing its strong judiciary.

"I want to prevent this potential tragedy. . . . I have been highly concerned with the quality of our judiciary. In our system of separated power, it is important to support a strong judiciary which is naturally less political and contributes to the long-term stable continuity of good government."

The $1.4 million required to raise Utah judges' salaries to a more equitable level is "really a nominal cost," Hatch said.

If lawmakers approve the raise, Utah can compete with any state in the nation and "set the standard for a great judiciary."