WASHINGTON (AP) – Chief Justice John Roberts has granted the Obama administration’s request to the Supreme Court to block the release of certain sex offenders who have completed their federal prison terms.

The federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., had earlier invalidated a law allowing the indefinite commitment of “sexually dangerous” prison inmates.

Roberts, in an order Friday, says as many as 77 inmates can continue to be held at a prison in North Carolina at least until the high court decides whether to hear the administration’s appeal of a ruling by the federal appeals court.

The Justice Department said the sex offenders could have been released as early as next week without the court’s intervention.

“That would pose a significant risk to the public and constitute a significant harm to the interests of the United States,” Solicitor General Elena Kagan wrote in court papers filed Friday.

It is possible, however, that state laws allowing civil commitments of sex offenders could be used to re-imprison the men.

The administration is appealing a ruling of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that Congress overstepped its authority when it enacted a law allowing for indefinite commitment of sex offenders.

The challenge to the law was brought by four men who served prison terms ranging from three to eight years for possession of child pornography or sexual abuse of a minor. Their confinement was supposed to end more than two years ago, but the government determined that they would be at risk of sexually violent conduct or child molestation if released.

A fifth man who also was part of the legal challenge was charged with child sex abuse, but declared incompetent to stand trial.

Civil commitment was authorized by the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which President George W. Bush signed in July 2006.

The act, named after the son of “America’s Most Wanted” television host John Walsh, also establishes a national sex offender registry, increases punishments for some federal crimes against children and strengthens child pornography protections. Those provisions were not affected by the ruling.

The administration is arguing that the law does not violate the Constitution and was well within Congress’ power.

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