KEENE, N.H. - More people are being left in legal limbo because of increased caseloads, more complex cases, and shortages of judges and clerical staff at New Hampshire's Superior Courts.
"It is not an exaggeration to say that every day there are at least two stacks at least a foot tall of routine matters on Judge Tucker's desk," said Cheshire County Superior Court Clerk Barbara Hogan. "Some days there are four or five stacks, and he gets them done every day. He's working them before and after the court opens."
Judges have 60 days to render a decision in any type of case after its final hearing. In Cheshire County, three were overdue this month.
"It's not getting better, but we're holding our own," Hogan said.
When decisions are overdue, the case files end up on the desk of Superior Court Chief Justice Robert Lynn, who talks with the judges and works out a solution.
"There is no real penalty," Lynn said. "We could make the judge work on the decisions on his vacation time, but that's never been necessary. They usually have a very good excuse for the delay."
Most of the time, judges are simply overworked, buried in paperwork, he said. Lynn said three years ago, he would see one or two overdue decisions statewide in a given month; now it's five to 10.
In Hillsborough County Superior Court South in Nashua, decisions in at least four cases were overdue this month, said Clerk Marshall Buttrick. The court has four full-time judges, and one vacancy. In Hillsborough County Superior Court North in Manchester, there were no overdue decisions this month, but clerical staff shortages have delayed the processing of the decisions.
"After the judge enters the decision into the record and gives it to our office, it may take two to four weeks for us to actually mail that decision because of a processing backlog," said Clerk John Safford.
Lynn said other government bodies are struggling, too.
"The Legislature is not singling out the court system. They have treated us very well over the last several years," he said. "There is a statewide budget problem, and I don't think we're any worse off than any other state agency."
In Keene, one overdue decision involves Jessie Carpenter, 27, who is in a custody dispute. While she waits for a decision, she sees her 5-year-old daughter for less than two hours a week at a supervised visitation center. The case dates to 2004; the last hearing was June 6.
"It's been long and drawn out, but I'm practicing my patience," she said. "I just have no idea what's going to happen."