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A $20K pay raise for some Utah judges?

A state commission recommends Utah lawmakers give judges a 10% total pay increase

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The the entrance to the Utah Supreme Court at the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City.

The the entrance to the Utah Supreme Court at the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City is pictured on Jan. 22, 2021.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Citing inflationary pressures and intense competition for qualified attorneys along the Wasatch Front resulting in sharp declines in numbers of lawyers applying for judgeships, a state commission has recommended a total 10% pay raise for Utah judges.

For Utah Supreme Court justices, the 10% pay hike would translate into a raise of more than $20,000 per year; about $19,400 for judges on the Utah Court of Appeals and approximately $18,500 for district court judges.

The recommendation by the Elected Official and Judicial Compensation Commission includes a 5% cost of living adjustment and a 5% market salary increase.

The Supreme Court justices’ annual salary is currently $203,720, while appellate and district court salaries are $194,460 and $185,200, respectively, according to the commission report.

The commission also recommended that top elected officials in Utah — the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, state auditor and state treasurer — receive a 5% cost of living increase. That would raise Gov. Spencer Cox’s annual salary from $174,700 to $183,425.

Under state law, the lieutenant governor, state auditor and state treasurer are paid the equivalent of 90% of the governor’s salary, while the attorney general is compensated at 95%.

The governor’s compensation package also includes housing; a vehicle for official and personal use; household and security staff; household expenses, as well as health, dental and retirement benefits.

The report to the Utah Legislature’s Executive Appropriations Committee stressed significant declines in numbers of attorneys applying for judicial vacancies at the district court level.

In 2011, about 35 attorneys applied for each juvenile court judgeships while at least 30 sought appointment to the district court bench per vacancy.

The numbers of applicants peaked between 2016 and 2017, when nearly 40 applicants sought appointment to the district court bench for each vacancy and there were more than 30 applicants for each juvenile court opening.

According to the commission’s report, the applicant pool has shrunk by more than half since 2011, with less than 15 attorneys applying for each judicial opening in 2022.

Utah’s judicial salaries exceed the national average, but are well below the maximum salary within the range of states, according to the commission report.

According to a 2019 report by the National Center for State Courts, judicial salaries were highest in California and lowest in West Virginia.

A 2022 comparison ranked Utah’s salaries for Supreme Court justices as 19th highest nationwide at $203,700, well below top-ranked California at $274,732 but well above West Virginia at $136,000.

“(The) commission found that judges in Utah are paid above the national average, but well below the maximum salary within the range of states. More concerning, however, was the data showing the drop in quantity of applicants for vacant judgeships,” the commission’s report stated.

The Executive Appropriations Committee neither commented nor took action on the commission’s recommendations during its meeting Tuesday. The Legislature funds salaries for state employees and most higher education compensation costs in the state budget.

The six-member compensation commission, whose members are appointed by the House speaker, Senate president, the Utah State Bar, governor and the commission itself, reports on compensation recommendations annually.