Adam Liptak's latest column discusses the new Justice Department rules that will allow the Attorney General to speed up appeals in capital cases.
Under an odd provision in last year's reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act, the antiterrorism law, the attorney general is to take on a role that has for more than a decade belonged to the courts. After the Justice Department finishes writing the regulations, Mr. Gonzales will get the job of deciding whether states are providing condemned inmates with decent lawyers.
If the answer is yes, federal litigation in capital cases from those states — one of the main reasons for the lengthy appeals — will move to a fast track. Inmates will have to file habeas corpus challenges in six months rather than a year, and judges will be subject to strict deadlines. Appeals courts, for instance, will get 120 days to decide cases.
The trade-offs themselves are not new, and they are not necessarily a problem. If states can be encouraged to provide able defense lawyers to death row inmates in state proceedings, the federal courts may indeed have less to worry about.
But giving the power to decide when a fast track is warranted to an interested party like Mr. Gonzales is a curious way to run a justice system.