Financial planners should keep Salt Lake County's justice court judges on their speed dialers, along with lottery winners and medical school graduates.

The county's four justice court judges are the most upwardly mobile employees in the county.Beginning Jan. 1, the judges will make $60,000 a year - a 19.5 percent increase over the $48,360 they made this year.

The county's four justice court judges - none of them attorneys - have watched their salaries nearly double in less than five years.

They made in the low $30,000 range five years ago, said Rick Schwermer, assistant court administrator in charge of the justice court system. "The increase to $48,000 was actually a pretty recent increase."

Other justice court judges are not receiving similar pay hikes. Davis County's sole justice court judge will make $32,380 next year. "He got a 3 percent raise - the standard cost-of-living increase," said Davis County personnel director Steve Baker.

Utah County's only justice court judge is making $46,670. She got a 4 percent pay raise last July, said Utah County personnel director Mike Callahan.

This latest raise means that the Salt Lake County judges, who don't have to have law degrees, are making more than 22 of the Salt Lake County attorneys.

The constitution doesn't allow the courts to require the county judges to have law degrees, said Chief Justice Michael D. Zimmerman.

"We don't control them. They are local courts . . . If anyone is going to make them have law degrees, it has to be the Legislature."

But Salt Lake County gave its judges the latest of several hefty raises because court officials recommended the increase, according to county documents.

Salt Lake County Justice Court judges should be making between $60,000 and $65,000, the State Court Administrator's Office recommended.

The office has been issuing annual salary recommendations for county judges since 1989. The recommendations for each county are based on the size and type of workload each judge carries, but the actual raises "are entirely the local counties' responsibilities," Schwermer said.

Salt Lake County Commissioner Brent Overson, who oversees the criminal justice division, said he just followed staff's advice on the pay raises.

"I'm just reacting to recommendations by personnel. We didn't have anything to countermand it," said Overson, who makes $70,656 annually.

The pay has to be adequate to ensure "we have high quality individuals," Overson said.

The county's personnel staff told the commissioners the pay raises would bring the county's judges up to par with salaries other judges receive.

But when told what justice judges in Davis and Utah counties make, Overson said, "Maybe we need to look at it again, I don't know. That was the recommendation. They didn't bring to us the other justices, their workloads and what they make.

"I had no other information provided to me to look at in the heat of the budget battle," Overson said. "Maybe it is something we need to look at again."

The county judges' salaries vary sharply from county to county. "Even when the judges do the same work, some of them get paid quite a bit and some of them don't get paid very much," Schwermer said.

Some justice court judges make only $4,900 a year. "That would be in a court that has 10 cases a month," Schwermer said.

Salt Lake County Justice Judge Peggy Acomb said the rapid raises are justified. The judges' case-loads have swollen and the technology has raced ahead.

The judges are holding more hearings, and taking on cases that require more paperwork. "The nature of the work has changed incredibly over the last five to 10 years," she said.

The judges still spend most of their time on traffic cases, but they are seeing more domestic violence and drunken driving cases as well, she said. The judges also handle all Class C misdemeanors as well as small claims matters from unincorporated parts of the county.

The county has also implemented several cost-saving measures in recent years that justify the raises, she said. The courts have slashed $1,500 per month in constable transportation fees because of technology. Automation has also enabled the court to handle more cases without hiring more staff.

The $60,000 is modest when one considers that 25 years ago some Salt Lake County justices of the peace made more than $100,000 a year in the scandal-plagued system the state once used, she said.

Justice officials recommend the higher salaries "to help ensure that you get and retain good people," Zimmerman said.

While the counties can't require law degrees, court officials hope to see more of them among the county judges. Higher salaries will make that more likely, they say.

"Roughly 10 percent of the judges are attorneys. I think that number has doubled since 1989," Schwermer said.


Additional Information

Extra pay for preliminary hearings?

Utah taxpayers may shortly pay justice court judges extra money for holding state preliminary hearings.

The Judicial Council is drafting a pay formula that specifies how much the county judges should get from the state for holding the hearings. If the Board of Justice Court Judges approves of the pay plan, the judiciary will ask the Legislature to fund it.

"We don't know what it will cost at this point," said Chief Justice Michael D. Zimmerman.

The council decided to draft a pay plan Friday after the Kane County Justice Court judge notified the council that he could no longer conduct the hearings because they were too burdensome.

The Kane County judge and other rural justice court judges often hold preliminary hearings because the defendant has a right to such hearings promptly, but district court judges can't always get to that part of the county in time, Zimmerman explained.

The hearings are state hearings and are not part of the county work the judges are paid for, he said. "So they are now saying we're going to refuse to continue doing them."

The county judges who would be compensated will not likely be judges along the Wasatch Front, Zimmerman said, and the metropolitan area circuit judges typically handle preliminary hearings. It would be judges in the rural areas, who often work part time and are not well-paid, who would get the extra money.