A U.S. Court of Appeals panel further delayed a decision yesterday on whether newly sentenced D.C. inmates to Lorton Reformatory can be transferred to federal prisons to relieve crowding, questioning the legality of forcing the federal government to take District prisoners.

The three-judge panel, in an unusual order, continued an administrative stay of a sweeping order by U.S. District Judge June L. Green on July 30 that would have forced the federal government to begin accepting D.C. inmates. The appeals court first delayed Green's order Aug. 4, and that stay would have expired on Monday.

Retired D.C. Superior Court judge John D. Fauntleroy Jr., who is Green's special court officer on prison issues, said that he does not expect a decision from the appeals court for "weeks or months."

"Things are at a standstill right now," said Fauntleroy. "We're just waiting for the court to make a decision."

City officials said yesterday the appeals court's move imperils their efforts to meet court-ordered inmate population limits at Lorton's crowded Central and Occoquan facilities. Green's order was expected to cause 300 to 500 D.C. prisoners each month to be sent to federal prisons.

"We will attempt to do what we have to do to keep the population within its court-ordered limits," said Beverly J. Burke, special counsel to the D.C. corporation counsel.

D.C. Corrections Director Hallem H. Williams Jr. said "if the recent past is any indicator of system intake, we're going to see a gradual increase in the numbers."

Williams said, however, that he is "still optimistic" about the court's final ruling. "At this point we have no indication which way the court is leaning," Williams said.

Green's July order for the federal government to begin taking all newly sentenced D.C. prisoners came after she made Attorney General Edwin Meese III a defendant in the suit brought in 1980 by Central inmates, reversing her own decision that same year that dismissed the federal government as a party. Central is the District's main medium-security facility and now holds 1,183 prisoners, compared with its limit of 1,166.

"Central is the new dumping ground for the system," said Peter J. Nickles, the attorney for Lorton inmates whose lawsuit resulted in Green's order.

Lorton's three Occoquan facilities also exceed the court-ordered limits. As of yesterday, Occoquan held 1,894 prisoners compared with a limit of 1,281.

Many of the panel's questions yesterday focused on the federal government's argument that Green lacks the authority to add the attorney general to the suit years after the District and inmates settled the lawsuit through a consent decree. All recent actions in the Central inmates' case have been to enforce the consent decree.

"Why should the attorney general be bound by numbers {in the consent decree} that he had nothing to do with litigating?" asked U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Ginsburg also told Nickles that he had failed to meet his burden to show that the federal government would not be hurt by an order to accept D.C. inmates. Lawyers for the federal government have argued that federal prisons are already 56 percent above capacity.

"What did you put in the record to show that {the federal government} wouldn't be hurt by this action?" Ginsburg asked.

The ruling yesterday was the latest action in the District's long-term prison problems. Since July, Judge Green has held the city in contempt for violating inmate population ceilings at Central. Under the contempt order, the city was to be fined $250 a day for each of its 25 dormitories that exceeds the court-ordered limits. That order is under separate appeal and has not been decided.

The D.C. prison system now holds 7,816 prisoners, and only two of the city's 10 prisons do not have court-ordered population limits.

The city was to begin construction on a 800-bed prison in Southeast Washington, but the Senate Appropriations Committee voted last week to postpone the project while three alternative sites are examined.