By Jonathan Allen
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump's administration argued in a federal appeals court on Wednesday that it should be allowed to execute condemned inmates without delay after a lower court ordered the executions be put on hold to hear legal challenges.
The administration's efforts to resume federal executions last year after a nearly two-decade pause were stymied by legal challenges from death row inmates.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit heard arguments for two hours on Wednesday on whether to lift a lower court's injunction blocking the executions. It was unclear when the three-judge panel would issue its decision.
Attorney General William Barr announced the planned resumption of executions and a new one-drug lethal injection protocol using pentobarbital, a powerful barbiturate drug, in July.
The first executions were scheduled for December but were placed on hold by a federal judge overseeing long-running lawsuits challenging the government's execution protocols. There are 62 inmates on federal death row in Terre Haute, Indiana.
U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan agreed with one of the inmates' arguments, namely that federal law does not permit the government to create a nationwide execution protocol, instead requiring executions to be carried out using the "manner" of the state where the inmate was convicted.
The government contends "manner" means the basic method a state uses: lethal injection, in most cases, as opposed to a firing squad or electrocution, for example. It rejects the idea that it must follow the details of a state's execution protocol, which may dictate the drugs used and where in the body the needles are placed.
Melissa Patterson, a lawyer for the government, said this would be "tying the federal governments' hands."
"Congress did not mean to say the states are in charge here," she said.
Catherine Stetson, a lawyer for the death row inmates, said Congress intended for the government to follow state procedures. She noted that in the last century states have carried out the vast majority of executions in the United States while the federal government has executed only three people since the 1960s.
"The people who know what they're doing are the states carrying out the death penalty," Stetson said.
In December, the U.S. Supreme Court declined the Justice Department's request to overturn the district court's injunction but urged the appeals court to rule on the case quickly, saying it should be possible to decide within 60 days.
(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)