Because 14 judges are taking advantage of a one-time early retirement offer from the state, plus other retirements and judges who are not expected to stand for re-election in 1994, Utah faces an unprecedented situation - replacing 25 percent of all its judges in the next two years.
Whether this can be considered an opportunity or a calamity will depend on the quality of the replacements.Two challenges are involved in the selection of new judges. One is salary. While the 1992 Legislature approved a pay raise for judges, it was - as usual - only about half the amount a citizen committee had recommended. As a result, Utah judges are not among the best-paid in the West.
It's a fact of life that the level of pay has a direct bearing on the quality of applicants for judgeships. The most talented people in the legal profession normally are already making far more than the judge post offers. The chief question is whether they consider it worthwhile to take the pay cut - and how much of a cut - to become a judge.
In fact, it can be argued that the heavy exodus from the bench in the next two years is a result of relatively low pay levels. Some of those retiring may go on to more lucrative work as lawyers.
The other challenge in judge selections is not only the quality of candidates, but the ideology and the selection process. Fortunately, the Utah selection process normally is less ideological than when Congress chooses federal judges or U.S. Supreme Court justices.
Part of this is due to a process that tends to emphasize ability rather than politics. Candidates are examined by one of eight bipartisan nominating commissions representing different areas of the state. The commissions forward three names for each position to the governor, who makes the final choice, subject to Senate confirmation.
The selection system has served the state reasonably well in the past, but the next two years will put a heavy strain on the process simply because of the significant number of judges who must be replaced. Utahns will have to live with the results for many years to come.