By PHILLIP BANTZ
For less than two hours, once a week, Jessie L. Carpenter gets to see her 5-year-old daughter at a supervised visitation center in Keene. Their conversations are limited to their surroundings. They can speak of nothing else.
“We cannot talk about people or things or activities outside that room,” Carpenter, 27, said in a recent interview with The Sentinel. “If she comes out with a statement that makes me uncomfortable, I cannot tell her she’s wrong. For example, she’ll call her stepmother ‘Mommy.’ ”
Carpenter and the child’s father are involved in a heated custody dispute. Their case file at Cheshire County Superior Court dates back to 2004 and is thick as a phone book. Their last hearing was June 6, but a judge has yet to make a decision in their case.
“It’s really difficult and unfair that I have to wait,” Carpenter said. “I was actually hoping to have my daughter here with me at my home over the summer. She’s school-age now. It’s probably twice as difficult for her because she’s going to school without the support of her mother.”
Increased caseloads, more complex cases and shortages of judges and clerical staff have led to higher numbers of overdue decisions across the state, which means more people are being left in legal limbo, their lives essentially put on hold until their cases are resolved.
Cheshire County has one full-time judge, Brian T. Tucker, and one part-time judge, John P. Arnold, who spends six months of the year in Sullivan County, where he is the only active judge.
“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,” Cheshire County Superior Court Clerk Barbara A. Hogan said. “Some days there are four or five stacks, and he gets them done every day. He’s working on them before and after the court opens.”
The routine decisions Hogan referred to require either a “granted” or “denied” order from the judge. Sometimes, though, a judge must sit down and write a decision on a complex issue, such as Carpenter’s case.
“The judge has to make legal reasoning for why he made a particular decision,” Hogan said. “For something as important and emotional as family cases, it’s extremely stressful and challenging and we have great empathy for the people involved. We know it’s difficult, because the life of a child is a fleeting thing.”
In New Hampshire, there is a policy that gives judges 60 days to render a decision in any type of case after its final hearing. Carpenter’s case was one of three that were overdue in Cheshire County this month, Hogan said.
“It’s not getting better, but we’re holding our own,” she said. “As a supervisor, I worry because it’s hard and there’s no end in sight. We’re just dealing with it honestly so we don’t have any false expectations for ourselves.”
When a decision is overdue, the clerks make sure Superior Court Chief Justice Robert J. Lynn hears about it. The case files end up on his desk, and it’s his job to talk with the judge who failed to draft a timely decision and work 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.”
The judge in question could be in the middle of a lengthy trial, or the decision he or she is working on could be unusually complicated, Lynn said. Most of the time, though, they’re just overworked, buried in paperwork, he said.
Three years ago, Lynn said he would see one, maybe two, overdue decisions statewide in a given month. Now it’s an average of five to 10.
“We think 60 days is a reasonable period of time for decisions to get out,” Lynn said. “Unfortunately, the result of not having enough judges is that all of the remaining judges are doing more and, of course, that pushes things back.”
The National Center for State Courts has determined 26 full-time judges are needed to effectively manage the state’s Superior Court caseload. The state Legislature has authorized 22 judgeships, the statutory minimum.
One resignation and two retirements have dropped the number of active judges to 19 statewide. Gov. John H. Lynch’s 11-member Judicial Selection Commission is screening applicants and is expected to fill the three vacant slots in December.
Cheshire County Superior Court will not be getting any new judges because the state says it is adequately staffed, at least in comparison to the needs of other courts, such as Hillsborough County Superior Court South in Nashua.
“This court should have one more full-time judge, and that judge has not been appointed,” said Nashua Clerk Marshall A. Buttrick. “Under the weighted caseload, we also should have two more clerical staffers than we have now.”
Judge decisions in at least four cases were overdue this month, Buttrick said. He said there are four full-time judges at his court.
Hillsborough County Superior Court North in Manchester, which also has four full-time judges, but no vacancies on the bench, has had no overdue decisions this month, according to Clerk John M. Safford.
Clerical staff shortages, though, have been bogging down the processing of the decisions, he said.
“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,” Safford said. “I’d definitely like to get a couple of extra clerical hands, but vacancies are being kept open to stay within budget guidelines.”
The state’s judicial system has plenty of company in being saddled with a skintight budget and great demands, Lynn said. He said it’s just another sign of the times.
“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.”
Clerical staffers and judges understand the problem, Hogan said, but that doesn’t prevent them from getting burned out.
“I have a great concern because the longer this goes on, the more tired people get. There’s a cumulative effect to working at this pace without interruption,” she said. “It could push employees to look for something else or to retire. If you’ve got people coming in every day complaining in very loud voices, it can be pretty challenging.”
The challenge is on both sides of the glass.
Waiting for months for an answer and still not knowing whether she’ll be able to spend more than two hours a week with her daughter and talk about something other than the furniture in the room has been downright excruciating, Carpenter said.
“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. It’s really hard times right now.”