Why Utah’s Supreme Court chief justice wants pay raises for judges statewide

Chief Justice Matthew Durrant asked for 15-20% salary bumps for judges around Utah.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Mathew Durrant speaks to the legislature, on opening day of the 2023 session, on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023.

A year after requesting salary hikes for the state’s judicial clerks, the chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court is asking for another pay increase — this time for judges.

During his “State of the Judiciary” remarks to the Legislature on Tuesday, Chief Justice Matthew Durrant asked state lawmakers for an increase in pay for the state’s judicial officers across all levels. Durrant, in his 23rd year on the court since his appointment in 2000, asked for judges’ pay to increase by 15 to 20%.

“It’s been about six years since we’ve had a raise, and a significant raise beyond the cost of living,” Durrant said to both chambers of the Utah Legislature.

One reason for the needed pay bump, according to Durrant, is the growing number of larger law firms with attorneys living and remotely working in Utah.

“We have attracted a big number of these satellite offices,” Durrant said. “They are paying a lot of money, similar to what they pay on the coasts. The result is lawyers’ salaries have gone through the roof. It’s really quite extraordinary.”

As a result, the pool for quality judges has decreased, as attorneys could be earning more at firms rather than sitting behind a bench.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, visit with the Utah Supreme Court Justices, on opening day of the 2023 session, on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023.

Durrant added that 2022 would’ve been an opportune time to ask for judicial pay raises, though he wanted the Legislature to address a more pressing issue instead — additional funding to keep qualified judicial assistants in Utah.

Last year he told lawmakers the state’s three-year turnover rate for judicial assistants jumped to 25%, up from 8.65% 10 years ago. At the time, Utah judicial clerks were paid around 20% under market rate, Durrant said. The Legislature later granted his funding request, according to a spokesperson for the state courts.

For the first time in State of Judiciary history, Utah’s chief justice was joined by three female justices, who make up a majority of the bench. Justices Diana Hagen and Jill Pohlman were nominated to join the state’s high court in March and June 2022, respectively.

During his introduction of Utah’s fourth other Supreme Court justice, Durrant confused the resumes of Hagen and Justice Paige Petersen, first saying Hagen prosecuted war crimes in a New York federal court. He later corrected himself, saying that was actually Petersen. Her biography on the Utah Supreme Court website says Petersen was an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of New York before returning to Utah. She was appointed to the high court in 2017.

In addition to his request to fund raises for judges, Durrant asked lawmakers for several other ticket items, including a new judge in Utah’s 4th Judicial District — made up of Utah, Wasatch, Juab and Millard counties — and a domestic violence program coordinator within the state courts system, among other requests.

Durrant was first appointed by then-Gov. Michael Leavitt in 2000.