[JURIST] Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and ranking Republican Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) have asked the Department of Justice (DOJ) to postpone its implementation of proposed guidelines intended to limit how federal courts can review state-issued death sentences. In a letter sent to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales obtained by AP Tuesday, the senators warned that any changes to "this complex and heavily litigated area of the law" in which defendants sentenced to death have high stakes must made with care. The new guidelines will limit the amount of time defendants have to file a federal appeal to six months after their conviction, and also impose strict limitations on how long federal judges can take to decide the appeals. States that wish to become eligible for this expedited review process are required to submit an application that will be reviewed by the attorney general, who is tasked under the 2006 renewal of the USA PATRIOT Act [PDF text; JURIST report] with reviewing whether states are providing "adequate counsel" to defendants sentenced to death.
Supporters of the expedited review process say it will counter the delays allegedly imposed by "liberal" federal judges and allow states to execute convicted criminals. Critics say the new guidelines will interfere with judicial review and create an inherent conflict of interest by giving the attorney general, the nation's top prosecutor, the authority to review whether defendants have received a fair trial. Opponents are also concerned with how much scrutiny Gonzales will place on states, as a former US Attorney has accused Gonzales of failing to give enough consideration to the quality of evidence or the recommendations of prosecutors directly involved in a case when pushing for the use of the death penalty [JURIST report]. AP has more.