A federal appeals court has allowed U.S. Attorney Jay B. Stephens to continue moving drug cases from D.C. Superior Court to federal court to take advantage of harsher federal penalties, but left open the possibility that the transfers might violate defendants' constitutional right to a speedy trial.

At issue in the ruling issued last Friday by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals are three cocaine possession cases originally filed in Superior Court but transferred to federal court in 1989 as part of a Bush administration crackdown on drugs here.

The ruling leaves the legality of the transfers of those three cases in doubt until further hearings are held by U.S. District Judge Harold H. Greene. It also raised the possibility that other people could challenge the practice of moving cases by citing the Sixth Amendment.

Stephens said yesterday that the appeals court "has vindicated our authority to choose the most effective means" of enforcing drug laws in Washington.

At the same time, the appeals court overruled Greene's decision that the federal sentencing guidelines were unconstitutional in practice, even though the Supreme Court has already upheld their constitutionality as written. Greene had ruled that the guidelines, combined with mandatory sentences, give prosecutors too much power to determine defendants' prison terms by selecting the offenses with which to charge them.

The influx of drug cases to federal court angered some judges there. They said it arbitrarily selected some defendants for stiff mandatory federal sentences after they'd spent months awaiting trial in Superior Court, and that it clogged their courts with cases that local court should handle.

Greene ruled in November 1989 in the three cases that the transfers violated the federal Speedy Trial Act, as well as the Fifth Amendment's guarantee of due process.

The appeals court ruling, written by Judge Harry Edwards, left open the possibility that the transfers might violate the Sixth Amendment, also guaranteeing a speedy trial. It sent the cases back to Greene.