WILLIAMSBURG, VA., JAN. 27 -- Criticizing the "chaotic conditions" that often precede executions, Chief Justice of the United States William H. Rehnquist urged state judges today to seek new ways to handle death-penalty appeals.

In a speech prepared for delivery to the National Conference of Chief Justices, Rehnquist complained about confusion surrounding last-minute appeals when inmates turn first to state courts and then to federal courts and the Supreme Court in an effort to stay an execution.

"Those of you who preside over courts in states which have the death penalty may be as familiar as are the members of our court with the sort of chaotic conditions that often develop within a day or two before an execution is scheduled," Rehnquist said.

"The practical result of this is that judges of both state and federal courts are called upon to make important constitutional decisions, often without as much time as would be ideal for making them," he said.

Although an inmate's conviction is considered final when upheld by a state's highest court, many states allow further challenges based on constitutional or procedural grounds. After state remedies are exhausted, a condemned inmate may go to federal court.

Rehnquist said it is unlikely that the law governing the appeals process will be changed soon, but he suggested new procedures might be drafted to make the process more orderly.

He added that "I think we do have a claim to have explored the possibility of imposing some reasonable regulations in a situation which is disjointed and chaotic."