Dallas salon owner released from county jail after defying orders by reopening early

Dallas salon owner Shelley Luther, who defied orders to keep her business closed during the pandemic, was released from jail Thursday, according to the Dallas County Sheriff's Office. She had been in jail since Tuesday after being sentenced to seven days, but on Thursday morning, the Texas Supreme Court granted a motion to release her.

The order came soon after Gov. Greg Abbott announced he was modifying his recent executive orders related to the coronavirus pandemic to eliminate jail time for Texans who violate the restrictions. The move by Abbott was an attempt to release Luther and prevent the jailing of others who have violated similar orders in recent weeks.

A small crowd with balloons and posters started cheering “Shelley’s free” upon her release, video from KTVT-TV shows. “I’m a little overwhelmed,” Luther said. “I just want to thank all of you who I just barely met, and now you’re all my friends. You mean so much to me, and this would have been nothing without you.”

Luther, whom state district Judge Eric Moyé found in contempt of court earlier this week, kept her Salon a la Mode running while violating stay-at-home orders and despite receiving a cease-and-desist letter from Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, as well as a temporary restraining order signed by Moyé, a Democrat, that told Luther her business must remain closed.

After Luther was jailed this week, her attorneys — who include state Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, and Warren Norred, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee — asked the state’s highest civil court, which consists of all Republicans, on Wednesday to immediately order her release.

In his statement Thursday, Abbott said his order is retroactive to April 2 and supersedes local directives.

Several attorneys, though, said Abbott’s order would not have immediately freed Luther. David Coale, an attorney in Dallas, described it as “apples and oranges” — Abbott barred criminal prosecution based on violation of his executive orders. But Luther had been jailed on contempt of court charges because she refused to follow Moyé’s orders.

“Court orders are always potentially enforceable by jail,” Coale said. A spokesperson with the Dallas County Sheriff's office also told news outlets before the court order Thursday that Abbott's announcement would not immediately impact Luther.

Until Abbott's announcement Thursday, Texans who didn't obey the governor's executive orders related to the virus could have faced up to 180 days in jail. Abbott spokesperson John Wittman said Thursday that while jail time has been removed, other punishments such as fines or license suspensions, still apply.

News of Luther's incarceration reached the White House, as Abbott visited President Donald Trump Thursday. After Abbott explained that his mandate means no one will face jail time for not following an executive order, Trump asked if that included Luther.

"She's free today," Abbott replied.

"Good," Trump said.

At the end of March, Abbott issued orders that directed Texans to stay at home unless they were doing essential services and activities. Abbott announced about a month later that he would allow some businesses in Texas to reopen under certain restrictions, rolling out directives for stores, restaurants and malls first and, more recently, hair salons, barbershops and pools, which will begin to reopen Friday.

Abbott also mentioned Thursday that his modifications “may also ensure” that others in similar cases “should not be subject to confinement.” Abbott referenced Ana Isabel Castro-Garcia and Brenda Stephanie Mata, who were arrested last month and charged with violating the community’s emergency management plan, according to the Laredo Morning Times, which also reported that both women were released on bond the same day.

Abbott's order Thursday comes a day after he and other top Texas Republicans weighed in on the controversy surrounding Luther, with the governor saying that Moyé had taken "excessive action" and suggesting that "there are less restrictive means" than jailing Luther. At the time, though, Abbott did not indicate whether he planned to wade in further — which disgruntled some hard-line Republicans who had been calling on the governor to commute Luther's sentence.

Attorney General Ken Paxton, meanwhile, called for Luther's immediate release in a statement and in a letter to Moyé on Wednesday, which came less than a week after a top lawyer in his office made clear to county judges that Abbott's executive order at the time to reopen certain Texas businesses did not include places like barbershops and hair salons. That clarification came soon after a few local officials questioned whether Abbott’s order actually excluded such businesses.

“I find it outrageous and out of touch that during this national pandemic, a judge ... would jail a mother for operating her hair salon in an attempt to put food on her family’s table,” Paxton said, calling Moyé’s order to jail and fine Luther thousands of dollars “a shameful abuse of judicial discretion.”

Later Wednesday, Moyé, along with the 11 other state civil district judges in Dallas County, signed on to a letter to Paxton calling his correspondence "an ex parte communication about a pending case."

"In this context, for you to 'Urge' a Judge towards a particular substantive outcome in this matter is most inappropriate and equally unwelcome," read the letter, which was reported by WFAA-TV. "Please do not communicate with the Court in this manner further."

As the pandemic has continued, multiple Republicans have urged Abbott to move at a quicker pace to begin reopening the Texas economy, arguing that business owners and employees needed to return to work to begin making an income again.

Cain, the House member who helped ask the Texas Supreme Court to order Luther's release, made headlines of his own earlier this week when he and another state lawmaker got illegal haircuts just hours before Abbott announced hair salons and barbershops were among the businesses that could reopen Friday with certain restrictions.

Democrats have also criticized Abbott, arguing that the state is not yet ready to begin reopening. In a statement Thursday, Texas Democratic Party spokesperson Abhi Rahman said Abbott was pushing "Texans to focus on the trivial" in an effort to have them "forget about the loved ones we have all lost and those working Texans that are putting their lives on the line every day to keep this state afloat."

“Instead of focusing on ramping up testing, establishing a long-term system for contact tracing, learning from the data with health experts, and listening to health professionals on the front lines," Rahman said in a statement, "Abbott dangles political red meat for his base while ignoring his own established guidelines and executive orders."

Emma Platoff, Clare Proctor and Juan Pablo Garnham contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/05/07/texas-dallas-salon-owner-coronavirus/.