JudicialStatewide NewsTexas Supreme Court Delivers Dallas Salon Owner Shelley Luther a Delayed Victory

Luther will officially avoid having to serve her remaining five-day jail sentence and payment of a $7,000 fine.
April 9, 2021
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Nearly a year after its last action on the case, the Supreme Court of Texas (SCOTX) ruled in favor of salon owner Shelley Luther in her challenge against Dallas County.

“To say we are pleased with the court’s ruling is an understatement,” Luther said in a statement upon the release of the ruling.

“We’re grateful for the support we’ve received from individuals across the country, and we ask that you continue to lift us up in prayer.”

The remaining five days in jail and $7,000 fine ordered by the district court is now off the table entirely.

Luther rocketed to national recognition last year when a Dallas County judge ordered her detainment after she defied state and local closure orders by continuing to operate her business.

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In reprimand, District Judge Eric Moyé ordered Luther to pay a $7,000 fine and spend a week in jail. To avoid that punishment, Moyé demanded a halt of the salon’s operation and an apology from Luther for defying the orders. That demand was refused and Luther spent two days in confinement before the SCOTX ordered her release pending review of the case.

Upon the local court ruling, Governor Greg Abbott — whose statewide order provided the wiggle room for local governments to create their own, more strict regulations — backdated his order with a change that violators could not be jailed.

In its decision issued Friday, SCOTX ruled that the temporary restraining order (TRO) levied at Luther by the county failed to establish clear terms for her to follow. This ambiguity, in the court’s view, renders the TRO null and void.

“The temporary restraining order here does not cite any statute, order, or regulation explicitly stating that a violation would justify the issuance of an injunction,” the court concludes. “Instead, it generally cites ‘State of Texas, Dallas County, and/or City of Dallas emergency regulations related to the COVID-19 pandemic’ without specifying which of them Luther violated.”

The decision is narrow as it only rules on this specific instance. Rather than ruling on the efficacy of lockdowns overall, it sticks only to this scenario in which the district judge failed to specify which order Luther had violated.

To decide a case on the most narrow terms capable is standard operating procedure for a conservative court like SCOTX. A prospective ruling on the Texas Disaster Act and the powers therein will have to wait for another day.

The basis for a more broad ruling on that question was established in a concurring opinion of this court’s original decision on Luther’s challenge, when four justices stated, “Any government that has made the grave decision to suspend the liberties of a free people during a health emergency should welcome the opportunity to demonstrate — both to its citizens and to the courts — that its chosen measures are absolutely necessary to combat a threat of overwhelming severity.”

“When properly called upon, the judicial branch must not shrink from its duty to require the government’s anti-virus orders to comply with the Constitution and the law, no matter the circumstances,” the opinion continued.

Despite that previous statement, Friday’s order, which was unanimous, honed in on the procedural shortcoming of Dallas County’s TRO. The constitutional question of the government lockdowns of last year remains unlitigated by the state’s highest court. Luther and her attorney Warren Norred have another lawsuit directly challenging the Disaster Act rather than this TRO and Luther’s containment, specifically. The oral argument for that case is upcoming.

However, the court has said in the past that “Ideally, these debates would play out in the public square, not in courtrooms.”

And so, the attention turns to the legislature, now in session for the first time since the lockdowns.

The legislature currently has two featured bills making their way through the chambers dealing with business closures. House Bill 3 would largely codify Governor Abbott’s response while creating a separate section of code governing pandemic responses.

The other, Senate Bill 6, aims to create liability protections for businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits, which some, like Luther, argue just opens the door up for more lawsuits.

Meanwhile, Senate Joint Resolution 45 would require the governor to call a special session before renewing an emergency declaration.

Further in her statement, Luther took aim at the first two bills decrying their approaches to business closures.

“What happened to me can happen again. Lawmakers need to protect business owners from busy body bureaucrats, not whitewash pandemic power grabs, empowering similar behavior in the future,” she concluded.

Since the episode, Luther has become an almost household name across Texas.

She capitalized on her newfound fame and ran an ultimately unsuccessful campaign for Senate District 30 in a special election last year during which she criticized Abbott extensively for his policy response to the pandemic.

But now, nearing a year from her first courtroom appearance, the specific episode is officially over and any chance of resumed containment over last year’s incident is gone with the wind.

Correction: The original version of this article misstated how long Luther spent in jail. We apologize for the error.

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.