Amidst a spending spree by the Legislature and executive office, dust is settling at the end of the session around a funding bump for the third branch of New Mexico government.

The state's judicial branch includes the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals and the Administrative Office of the Courts, which oversees all the district and magistrate courts.

The final budget approved by the Legislature includes an increase of more than 4% for court operations in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

If Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham approves the final plan as supporters anticipate, the courts will see about $191 million to pay for operations that include five new judgeships (one in Santa Fe), more money for pretrial services and increases in security.

Arthur Pepin, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, tells SFR judicial leaders are pleased with the session's outcome and that lawmakers understood the court priorities. Yet, there's an area where New Mexico still has catching up to do: judges' salaries.

Separate from the operating cash, lawmakers planned for a 7% pay increase for judges. That's a compromise added by the Senate after the House first recommended a 6% hike, but it's not quite the 8% raise recommended by an independent panel.

"We've come a long way, and the Legislature has been supportive," Pepin says. "We have a ways to go."

Two years ago, he says, New Mexico was dead last when it came to judicial salaries. But since this is the third consecutive year of increases—6.5%, then 6% last year—the compensation is starting to become more competitive.

The chief justice of the Supreme Court warned during the session that low pay for even the highest officers in the judiciary spells trouble.

A 7% increase after two straight years of raises might seem like a good bump until you compare the state's Supreme Court justice salaries to other professions. They earn $148,207. (Even with the raise, it will still be far less than the Santa Fe County manager, who earns $198,750, for example.)

Judicial salaries here continued to be among the lowest in the nation going into the session. For four years between 2010 and 2013, judges saw no salary increases, then another zero-increase period between 2016 and 2018.

This year, the state ranked 48 out of 55 in pay among supreme courts and district courts in the nation and its territories, according to a study published in January by the National Center for State Courts. New Mexico is also the lowest by far in the Mountain Region, where Colorado and Utah are near the top.

Chief Justice Judith Nakamura told lawmakers at a House budget hearing she sees that as a big problem for New Mexico—and not because of her personal bank account.

"While I mentioned to you the discrepancy between our pay and the pay of judges and justices in other states, that's really not what matters," she said. "What really matters is the pool that we draw from, which are the lawyers in the state."

Nakamura pointed to a 2017 New Mexico Bar Association survey that found the average partner who is a shareholder makes about $210,000, and in private practice, attorneys can average about $184,000 per year in the state.

"If the Legislature chooses to accept your compensation commission recommendations, it will move a district court judge salary to $144,000, which is still about $40,000 below the private sector, but it is a move in the right direction," the longtime jurist said.

Already, many rural places have a dearth of private attorneys to help residents with civil litigation or defend themselves in criminal cases. A  Supreme Court workgroup last year reported that one-third of the state's counties have 10 or or fewer active resident attorneys, and three counties have none.

Fewer attorneys also lead to fewer judge candidates. The judiciary's unified budget proposal to the Legislature cited the number of qualified applicants for judge vacancies as very small. In 2018, for example, the nominating commission heard from 18 applicants for eight vacancies and only 12 candidates met minimum qualifications.  In five of the eight vacancies, just one person applied to fill the judgeship.

That means filling the five new positions established for the upcoming fiscal year could be a challenge for the courts.

District courts in Santa Fe, Doña Ana,  Otero and Lincoln counties would get new judges under the proposal;  Bernalillo County would get two. Pepin says applications for those jobs would open in May or June, and the quantity—and quality—of job seekers could help future commissions make recommendations about how much higher the salaries need to climb. The most recent commission put that salary at about $165,000 for district judges.

"We want to expand the pool by making judgeships more attractive to mid-career lawyers," he says, noting most applicants come from government jobs like public defenders and prosecutors. A broader pool would also include lawyers who work in private sectors such as family law.

Santa Fe's getting more than just a new judge.

On top of the operating money and salaries, lawmakers included capital spending in a different bill and set aside $9 million for court-related capital improvements, including $2.2 million to begin the design and planning of a new magistrate court building slated for construction in Valdez Business Park behind Kohl's on Santa Fe's Southside.

This story is part of the "Your New Mexico Government" Project (#YourNMgov), a collaboration between New Mexico PBS, KUNM Radio, and the Santa Fe Reporter. This endeavor is funded by the New Mexico Local Journalism Fund with public media support provided by the Thornburg Foundation.