When Utahns appear before a judge for a decision that could profoundly impact their lives, they deserve to have the assurance that the judge holding justice in his hands is well-qualified to make a fair and wise ruling.

Though the quality of justice in this state is still relatively high, Utahns can no longer be sure how long it will stay that way.Why? Utah is no longer attracting the best qualified attorneys for the bench because salaries for judges are still not what they should be even though the 1988 Legislature increased them.

That's not just our opinion but is the conclusion of a citizens' panel that studied the situation. Gov. Bangerter evidently agrees, since his proposed new budget includes judicial pay raises along the lines recommended by the panel, the Committee on Judicial Compensation.

In any event, the ordinary Utahn who may never earn as much as a judge still ought to loosen his purse strings because it's in the public's best interest to do so. Moreover, though the proposed raises would come to a total of $1.2 million, that amounts to only 0.17 percent of the total general fund appropriation recommended for the next fiscal year.

Judges handle much more than just the big, attention-getting cases. It's also a judge's duty to make such sobering decisions as which parent a child should live with and whether a physician should be held accountable for malpractice, as well as if a man should live or die for his crime.

Not only does the job require the highest ethical standards, it demands knowledge, experience, and legal expertise.

But those applying for judgeships in Utah in recent years aren't as well-qualified as they used to be - primarily because the salaries are too low.

The inability to attract the best legal minds was sadly demonstrated with a recent bench vacancy in Weber, Davis, and Morgan counties. At the end of a 30-day application period, only three - out of a population of 1,000 attorneys - had applied.

The vacancy was reannounced because law requires a minimum of nine applicants. Finally, 15 attorneys applied, but none had obtained the highest rating for legal ability by an established evaluation firm.

Nominating committees who have the responsibility to recommend three attorneys to the governor for appointments to the bench complain that they are unable to recommend candidates they consider to be well-qualified.

Instead of attracting the brightest attorneys, many applicants seem to be those with little experience, unable to secure a stable income in private practice.

Should Utahns be willing to settle for mediocre justice dealt out by mediocre judges? Hardly!

After a thorough and objective evaluation of Utah's judges salaries, a citizens' committee recommends the following increases: 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.

Utah judges now earn 18.62 percent below national average.

The proposed raises would help overcome the morale and other problems that arise when, for example, Utah judges are dealing with government attorneys whose salaries are more than $9,000 higher than that of State Supreme Court justices.

As an example of how morale is declining among sitting judges, two of Utah's most respected judges recently left the bench, citing low salaries as the reason for leaving.

To attract and retain qualified judges on Utah's bench, the 1989 Legislature would do well to support these reasonable salary increases.