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The Texas Supreme Court has ordered the release of Shelley Luther, a Dallas salon owner who was jailed on Tuesday after violating state and local stay-at-home orders by reopening her shop and flouting a judicial restraining order in front of television news cameras.
Luther’s release came after she had become a cause célèbre among conservative activists and politicians around the country who had been calling on Republican Gov. Greg Abbott to take swift action to come to her aid. Abbott has modified his original executive order, explicitly saying local officials can no longer jail people who violate the state’s stay-at-home order. Previously, Abbott had said jailing offenders was an option for local officials but should be considered the last resort.
Luther’s salon was initially forced to close in mid-March after Dallas County issued a stay-at-home order. Despite that order and a subsequent statewide ban, Luther reopened her salon on April 24. On Tuesday, Dallas Civil District Judge Eric Moyé ordered Luther to be jailed for seven days and forced to pay a $3,500 fine.
After Luther was jailed, Texas Republicans began calling for her immediate release.
“Throwing Texans in jail who have had their businesses shut down through no fault of their own is nonsensical, and I will not allow it to happen,” Abbott said in a statement on Wednesday. “That is why I am modifying my executive orders to ensure confinement is not a punishment for violating an order.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton called Luther’s sentence “outrageous and out of touch.”
“The trial judge did not need to lock up Shelley Luther,” Paxton said in a statement. “His order is a shameful abuse of judicial discretion, which seems like another political stunt in Dallas.”
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick even said he would go to jail in Luther’s place and pay her fine. After Luther was released, Patrick indeed paid her fine.
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz tweeted “7 days in jail for cutting hair?? This is NUTS.”
“And government officials don’t get to order citizens to apologize to them for daring to earn a living,” he added
Defenders of the sentence say Luther was not jailed just for violating state and local stay-at-home orders, but instead for contempt of court charges stemming from her decision to disobey a state judge’s temporary restraining order prohibiting her from continuing to operate her salon. Moyé offered to let Luther go with just a fine if she apologized for what he called her “selfish” actions.
“Feeding my kids is not selfish,” she told the judge. “If you think the law is more important than kids getting fed, then please go ahead with your decision, but I am not going to shut the salon.”
In his decision, Moyé pointed out that Luther had “expressed no contrition, remorse or regret” for her actions.
“The defiance of the court’s order was open, flagrant, and intentional,” Moyé added.
A GoFundMe fundraiser, which hailed Luther as an "American Hero that has decided to resist tyranny by opening her business against an unlawful State Executive Order," had raised over $500,000 by Thursday afternoon.
“She is doing what everyone else is only talking about, in a patriotic move to take back her liberty,” the fundraiser’s organizer wrote.
While Luther’s jailing has fired up conservatives, at least one Texas state legislator believes that she has received special treatment because she is white.
“I wish Black and Brown people could be offered the chance to apologize instead of going to jail,” Gene Wu, a Houston Democrat, said in a tweet on Wednesday. “I wish people wouldn't be put back into prison because they couldn't pay their fees or fines.”
On Thursday, a group of 12 Texas judges wrote to Paxton saying that his actions in the Luther case had violated state rules concerning judicial conduct.
Luther’s release comes as Texas is reopening large swaths of its economy even as the state has recorded some of its highest numbers of new COVID-19 cases in recent days. As of Friday, salons and barbershops will be allowed to reopen across the state.
In leaked audio from a call last week with Texas legislators, Abbott announced that “much every scientific and medical report shows that whenever you have a reopening…it actually will lead to an increase in spreads.”