Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Alexander Bryner on Wednesday told a joint session of the Legislature that state judges' salaries may soon rank among the lowest in the nation.
As a result, he said, Alaska may find it harder to draw top legal professionals to the bench if the pay doesn't keep pace with federal and other states' courts.
"If we blind ourselves to the problem, we may ultimately deprive our state of a balanced bench," Bryner said.
Bryner was giving his annual state of the judiciary address to the House and Senate. He said Alaska's courts were strong and sound but increased case loads, particularly in Palmer, were straining the system.
Court officials plan to ask the Legislature to fund an expansion of space and staff in the Palmer Superior Court this year.
The salaries of Alaska judges were comparatively high in the early 1980s, but federal and other states' salaries have since passed Alaska, he said.
According to a survey by the National Center for State Courts, Alaska judges' salaries averaged $109,032 in 2003, which was 29th in the nation.
Adjusted for cost of living, the average salary was $84,141 that year, dropping Alaska to 49th among states, according to the survey. Hawaii was last in the adjusted scale.
Federal district judges make almost 50 percent more than Alaska Superior Court judges, Bryner said.
He told lawmakers the state has been able to appoint strong judicial applicants until now, but Alaska has to remain competitive if it wants to continue to do so.
"If we want to draw tomorrow's judges from the leaders of our legal profession - especially those from the private sector - we cannot realistically offer them salaries that may soon rank among the last in the nation," he said.
The rate of turnover among judges has doubled to an average of eight vacancies per year over the last three years compared with the state's first four decades of statehood, when the average was four vacancies per year, he said. That accelerated rate highlights the salary question, he said.
A bill introduced at the request of Gov. Frank Murkowski would raise judges' and certain public employees' salaries by 2 percent on July 1 and 3 percent July 2006. Versions of the bill are awaiting action in the finance committees of the Senate and the House.
House Judiciary Chairwoman Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, said the increases will be necessary.
"There is strong evidence we have fallen behind," she said. "It's important the salaries be competitive."