After four years of legal maneuvering, Bettye Delores Pitts finally had her day in court.

But it took four more years for U.S. District Judge John Garrett Penn to make up his mind on her case, and early last month he threw it out of court.

It's not unusual for complicated cases to take years to wend their way through the often complex and protracted proceedings of the federal court system, but Pitts' case is particularly illustrative of what has become a vexing problem for the federal court in the District of Columbia: Judge Penn's mounting backlog of cases and the years-long delays that mark his handling of civil cases.

While information about judges' caseloads is not made public, sources said that court documents show Penn consistently has the worst record for moving cases forward.

And court observers say that Penn's apparent difficulty in making decisions is especially troubling because he is next in line to become chief judge, a job that requires timely decisions on hundreds of matters, ranging from questions on grand jury matters to detention of inmates.

Penn, 55, is expected to succeed Chief Judge Aubrey E. Robinson Jr., who must step aside by 1992 when he will be 70. At that time, Penn would have the most seniority of any judge who is 65 years old or younger. The chief judge has administrative authority over the court, including its budget, but does not oversee the work of other judges.

Penn said through a spokeswoman that he does not comment on his cases or any delays in them.

Pitts, the mother of four and an inmate at the women's Federal Correctional Institution in Alderson, W.Va., had filed suit against the federal and District governments in 1979, claiming that women convicted in D.C. Superior Court were denied their due process rights because the city does not have a women's prison.

Women sentenced here for terms of more than a year are sent to federal prisons, and most of them go to Alderson, which is 260 miles from the District and lacks the job training, educational and work-release programs available to men at the city's Lorton prisons.

Penn held a hearing in the case on Dec. 19, 1983, after lengthy delays -- including one of 21 months -- awaiting his rulings on procedural points.

But for four years after the hearing, Pitts and two other inmates who had joined in the case, Gwendolyn A. Samuels and Diane Henson, heard nothing from the judge.

On Dec. 9, the same day Pitts' attorney, Jeffrey Ayres of Baltimore, filed a memorandum stating that he was contemplating filing a writ of mandamus with the U.S. Court of Appeals asking for Penn to be ordered to rule in the case, the judge dismissed Pitts' case.

In a 30-page opinion, Penn ruled that the women had not proved that the programs at Alderson are inferior to programs provided for men at Lorton.

While the case was pending, Pitts, who at the time she filed the suit was serving a seven-to-21-year sentence for grand larceny and receiving stolen goods, was released on parole. She was sent back to Alderson last year after being convicted of heroin possession, shoplifting and violating the Bail Reform Act.

Samuels, who was originally sentenced to six years to life imprisonment on two charges of armed robbery, also was released on parole during the case and sent back to Alderson after she was convicted of assault with a dangerous weapon.

The third woman in the suit, Henson, has been at Alderson since January 1982, serving eight to 24 years for grand larceny, armed robbery, forgery and uttering. Henson was added to the suit in 1983 when it appeared the legal action might be made moot by the impending release of Pitts and Samuels.

Judges are required to report quarterly to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts on their cases that have been "at issue" -- that is, awaiting a ruling -- for more than 60 days, noting those older than six months. As of the end of November, 3,250 civil cases and 125 criminal cases were pending.

About half of the 15 active federal judges here routinely have no old cases to report, sources said; others on the bench report having as few as one or as many as a half dozen, according to sources.

Penn, however, regularly lists more than a dozen cases that have been awaiting a decision for longer than six months, and sources said his lists are not always complete.

Several lawyers questioned about Penn's caseload declined to be quoted, pointing out that they must continue to practice before him, but most noted that he has become well known for his delays.

For example, Penn delayed sentencing of former South Carolina representative John Jenrette, convicted in the Abscam cases, for nearly three years, while he waited for the U.S. Court of Appeals to rule on the use of the entrapment defense in the Abscam cases. Jenrette had asked the judge to overturn the conviction, charging the government with entrapment, a defense also used by former Florida member of Congress Richard Kelly.

Usually, persons convicted here are sentenced in six weeks to two months. If there is a pending legal question, most judges sentence a defendant and delay execution of the sentence until it is settled on appeal.

In a discrimination case filed in 1982 by 21 D.C. police detectives, Penn did not rule for four years, which was 2 1/2 years after the trial.

In the damages case by presidential Press Secretary James Brady, a D.C. police officer and two Secret Service agents against John W. Hinckley Jr., also filed in 1982, Penn dismissed in April 1986, the claims against the manufacturer of the gun Hinckley used to shoot President Reagan and the others in 1981, but he did not file his opinion in the case for two more months.

Written opinions, which are necessary before an appeal can go forward, are usually issued at the time of a ruling.

"When Judge Penn finally rules, you know he has carefully considered all of your arguments," said a lawyer, who asked not to be identified. "He really agonizes over his decisions."

"He simply has a hard time making up his mind," another lawyer said. "You can tell it in his decisions, he often seems to go in one direction and then another."

Others point out that Penn spends especially long hours at the courthouse working.

Penn was appointed to the federal bench in 1979 by President Carter after nearly nine years as a D.C. Superior Court judge. Before that, he had been a Justice Department tax lawyer for 10 years. Well liked by his colleagues, Penn is known for his patience and even temperament on the bench.

A graduate of the University of Massachusetts and the Boston University law school, Penn presided over the criminal trials of Jenrette and former Youth Pride official Mary Treadwell.

Jenrette was convicted in 1980 of bribery and conspiracy in the FBI's Abscam undercover operation. Treadwell was convicted in 1983 of using P.I. Properties, a real estate affiliate of the District-based Youth Pride job training program that she headed in the 1970s, to defraud the federal government and the impoverished tenants of the Clifton Terrace apartments of thousands of dollars to enrich herself.

Last year, Penn presided over the two-month trial of Eddie Adair, who was convicted of racketeering and heroin distribution in connection with one of the city's biggest heroin rings. And last month, Penn turned down Howard University's attempt to force the National Collegiate Athletic Association to include the university's football team in its Division I playoffs.

Penn does not hold the record for delay in ruling on a case. That apparently is held by senior U.S. District Judge William B. Bryant, who has been considering the discrimination case of a federal worker for almost 10 years. In May, the U.S. Court of Appeals denied the man's request to force Bryant to rule, saying it was certain the judge would act soon.

There still has been no ruling in that case, and the man, Earl Roland Brees, died in June. The executor of Brees' estate is continuing to press the case.

Several of the judges on the court have a case or two that took them years to decide.

In the federal court system, judges are largely autonomous. Their civil case work isn't supervised -- except indirectly by higher courts -- and there is no system to prod judges to keep their caseload current.

The District Court here uses an internal reporting system through which judges are to list their cases that have been awaiting decision for more than six months. But there is no enforcement mechanism.

Some courts simply do not assign new civil cases to judges who are far behind in their work, but judges here say that simply rewards those who fall behind.

Most of the lengthy delays are in civil cases, partly because the federal Speedy Trial Act sets specific time limits for processing criminal cases. Generally, the law requires that a defendant go on trial within 70 days after his indictment.

Defendants may ask for an extension of the 70-day limit, and certain motions by defendants automatically trigger extensions. But judges may not delay cases on their own.