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By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday rejected a request by President Donald Trump's administration to proceed with plans to carry out the first executions of federal death row inmates since 2003.
The justices left in place a hold imposed by a federal judge on four executions that had been scheduled by U.S. Attorney General William Barr for this month and next month as Trump's administration embraces the death penalty at a time when increasing numbers of states have given up the practice.
The brief order said that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that is now considering the case should rule "with appropriate dispatch."
Conservative Justice Samuel Alito wrote a separate statement, joined by fellow conservatives Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, saying the appeals court should be able to rule within 60 days.
"The government has shown that it is very likely to prevail when this question is ultimately decided," Alito wrote.
The administration turned to the Supreme Court after the appeals court on Dec. 2 refused to immediately allow the executions to resume.
"The courts have made clear that the government cannot rush executions in order to evade judicial review of the legality and constitutionality of its new execution procedure," said Shawn Nolan, a lawyer for death row inmates.
Department of Justice spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said that while it was disappointed with the ruling, "we will argue the case on its merits in the D.C. Circuit and, if necessary, the Supreme Court."
Separately, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago on Friday granted a request made by the Trump administration and lifted a stay of execution for death row inmate Daniel Lewis Lee, who the government had wanted to execute on Monday. But as a result of the Supreme Court action, his execution will now be delayed.
In the Washington case, U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan in November put on hold the planned executions until a long-running legal challenge to the Justice Department's lethal injection protocol can be resolved.
Most executions in the United States have been carried out by states rather than the federal government, which has gone 16 years without carrying out the death penalty. Protracted litigation over the drugs used in lethal injection executions prevented the government from continuing the practice.
The inmates scheduled for execution by lethal injection all were convicted in federal courts of murder.
Lee was scheduled to be the first of the group to be executed, at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana on Monday. Most male federal death row inmates are imprisoned in the Indiana prison.
A white supremacist, Lee was convicted in Arkansas in the suffocation deaths carried out with an accomplice of a gun dealer, the man's wife and her 8-year-old daughter in 1996.
Wesley Purkey was scheduled to be executed at the same prison next Friday.
Purkey was convicted in the 1998 kidnapping, rape, murder and dismembering of a 16-year-old girl in Kansas. Purkey separately pleaded guilty in the bludgeoning death of an 80-year-old woman.
Purkey's lawyers have filed a separate challenge to his execution, saying he should be spared because he has developed Alzheimer's disease.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; editing by Grant McCool)