The Texas Supreme Court has ordered the release of a Dallas hair salon owner, who was sentenced to jail by a judge on Tuesday after she reopened her shop despite the governor’s order shutting down non-essential businesses.
The move by the state’s high court came after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton voiced outrage over Shelley Luther being found in contempt of court and sentenced to seven days in prison.
Luther reopened her business, Salon À la Mode, despite orders issued by Abbott for all non-essential businesses to shut down as the state tries to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus. She claimed that she needed to reopen her salon because she would not have been able to feed her children without doing so.
In her hearing Thursday, Luther reportedly refused an opportunity by Dallas County State District Judge Eric Moyé to apologize and label herself “selfish” for violating the state order rather than pay a fine or serve jail time.
The judge found that she had no “contrition, remorse or regret.” Her sentencing came on the same day that Abbott announced that salons, gyms, and other businesses can begin reopening their doors on Friday.
The Texas Supreme Court’s order was laid down on the same day in which Abbott removed jail as a possible punishment for people who violate the state’s coronavirus shutdown orders.
In a statement, the Texas attorney general praised the Supreme Court for “correctly” addressing Luther’s “excessive punishment and unnecessary jailing.”
“No Texan should face imprisonment for peacefully resisting an order that temporarily closed a lawful business and drastically limited their ability to provide for their family through no fault of their own,” Paxton said. “Texans must all work together to overcome this crisis, and ensuring freedom from excessive punishment is critical.”
Luther’s case drew the ire of state leaders and much pushback from people who have opposed orders forcing businesses to close during the pandemic.
In a tweet Thursday, Abbott argued that “[t]hrowing Texans in jail whose biz's shut down through no fault of their own is wrong.”
“I am eliminating jail for violating an order, retroactive to April 2, superseding local orders,” Abbott wrote. “Criminals shouldn’t be released to prevent COVID-19 just to put business owners in their place.”
Paxton wrote a letter to Moyé on Wednesday, calling on him to release the mother and business owner. He also accused the judge of abusing his authority.
“As a mother, Ms. Luther wanted to feed her children. As a small business owner, she wanted to help her employees feed their children,” Paxton wrote. “Needless to say, these are laudable goals that warrant the exercise of enforcement discretion.
“Indeed, local officials in Dallas have already gone considerably farther in cases less deserving of enforcement discretion. The Dallas County District Attorney announced that he ‘will not prosecute theft of personal items less than $750 unless the evidence shows that the alleged theft was for economic gain.’”
Paxton stressed that if Dallas County is “prepared to completely forgo prosecution of actual thefts” it should not “confine a woman to jail because she operated her business.”
“I find it outrageous and out of touch that during this national pandemic, a judge, in a county that actually released hardened criminals for fear of contracting COVID-19, would jail a mother for operating her hair salon in an attempt to put food on her family’s table,” Paxton said in a statement Wednesday. “The trial judge did not need to lock up Shelley Luther. His order is a shameful abuse of judicial discretion, which seems like another political stunt in Dallas.”
Paxton also stated that under the governor’s new executive order, Luther would be allowed to open her business on Friday.
“Confining Ms. Luther for seven days, well after she could be operating her business and providing for her children, is unjustifiable,” Paxton stated.
In Texas, there have been over 34,000 cases of COVID-19 reported. In the Dallas/Fort Worth region, there have been over 9,000 reported cases and 272 deaths as of Thursday afternoon.
Luther is not the only business owner in Texas arrested for operating her business despite the order.
In Laredo, two women — Ana Isabel Castro-Garcia and Brenda Stephanie Mataoffering — were arrested on April 15 for offering beauty and cosmetic services from their home. They were later released on bond.
According to The Laredo Morning Times, Castro-Garcia and Mata faced the potential to serve up to 180 days in jail for their violations before Abbott eliminated jail time as punishment for violating the shutdown.
“This order is retroactive to April 2nd, supersedes local orders and if correctly applied should free Shelley Luther. It may also ensure that other Texans like Ana Isabel Castro-Garcia and Brenda Stephanie Mata who were arrested in Laredo, should not be subject to confinement,” Abbott said in a statement.