BOISE, Idaho (Legal Newsline) - Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Burdick says better pay and benefits are needed to ensure that the state's court system attracts those who are highly qualified.

Burdick expressed his concern during his annual State of the Judiciary Address. He delivered his speech to the state House of Representatives and Senate Wednesday.

"Idaho's judiciary decides our citizens' most important personal and business problems, ranging from the care and custody of our children to the most byzantine of business relationships. For this constitutional requirement, we need our most experienced and scholarly lawyers to become judges," he told lawmakers.

Since 2000, former Govs. Dirk Kempthorne and Jim Risch and current Gov. Butch Otter have been given the "full slate of four candidates to fill district judge positions only 26 percent of the time," the chief justice noted.

"Our magistrate judge openings during the same time period have had an ample list of qualified applicants," he said.

"A more competitive compensation package is required to insure the third branch of government attracts highly qualified individuals for district judge and other positions."

Burdick said Idaho's trial judges have not had an increase in their compensation since July 2008 and the state currently ranks 47th lowest in the nation.

Another sticking point, he said, is the state's Judges Retirement Fund.

"The Court has conferred with legislators, state pension experts, and (Public Retirement System of Idaho)'s actuary to explore ways to strengthen the fund for the future," he said. "We hope reasonable consensus will be reached this session on ways to do so."

Overall, the judiciary is straining under scarce resources, expanded duties and, even more so, increased caseloads, the chief justice said.

Judges, he said, have seen a "substantial" increase in certain types of cases.

In particular, since 2006, there has been a 30 percent increase in district court civil cases -- including complex civil, medical and business disputes that often take years to resolve, Burdick said.

Divorce and child custody cases have risen by 10 percent, while mental health commitment proceedings have seen a 151 percent increase, he said.

The chief justice said the trends -- likely the direct result of the economic decline -- are a reflection of the heightened stress levels that residents and businesses are experiencing amid the slow economy.

"We must begin a conversation with the Legislature, the governor, and county clerks and commissioners about how best to address the pent up demand for judges, court facilities, and new resources needed to conduct safe, timely hearings on the vital issues facing everyday Idaho citizens," Burdick told lawmakers.

"These conversations will present new challenges for the future, but I'm convinced with the continued support of the Idaho Legislature, the governor, and county officials we will solve them and present an even stronger judiciary to you next year, and the years thereafter."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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