A US federal judge has ordered a temporary halt to the scheduled executions next month of four inmates, saying that President Donald Trump's administration lacked legal authorization to use its intended lethal-injection drug.
The ruling late on Wednesday by District Judge Tanya Chutkan effectively blocks the Justice Department's attempt to resume the use of the death penalty after a 16-year hiatus.
The four inmates argued that the Justice Department's plan to use the drug pentobarbital, instead of a three-drug cocktail that has been previously used in executions, ran afoul of federal laws.
"Because the public is not served by short-circuiting legitimate judicial process, and is greatly served by attempting to ensure that the most serious punishment is imposed lawfully, this court finds that it is in the public interest to issue a preliminary injunction," Chutkan wrote in her 15-page ruling.
In July, the US Justice Department reinstated a two-decades-long dormant policy allowing the federal government's use of capital punishment, and immediately scheduled the executions for five death row federal inmates.
The last federal execution took place in 2003. Since then, protracted litigation over the drugs historically used in lethal injection executions prevented the government from continuing the practice, according to Justice Department officials.