SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ For the second time, a federal appeals court on Monday refused to put federal appeals in California death penalty cases on a ``fast track.''

The speedier process would have included a six-month time limit to file appeals. Federal district judges would have had to make the case their top priority and would have six months to issue a ruling.

A 1996 federal law allowed states to speed up appeals in capital cases, but only if a state set binding standards for the appointment, competency and reasonable payment of lawyers for condemned prisoners after the initial appeal.

Second-level appeals, known as habeas corpus, typically involve claims that a prisoner's trial lawyer was incompetent. They are usually a prisoner's best chance to overturn a death sentence in federal court.

No state has yet qualified for the fast track. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said California, for the period covered by Monday's case _ through the end of 1997 _ failed to show that it had any binding standards for court-appointed defense lawyers.

Prisoners on death row in California now wait three or four years to get a lawyer. A state law that took effect in January 1998 increased funding for lawyers in capital cases, created a new office to train them and strengthened competency standards.

The court did not say whether the new law would qualify the state for the shorter deadlines. That issue is unlikely to present itself in court for several years because cases handled under the new provisions are still moving toward federal courts.

Monday's ruling affects about 150 prisoners who are appealing in federal court after their death sentences were upheld by the state Supreme Court, said defense lawyer Michael Laurence.