DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – A Dallas hair salon owner’s confinement has prompted calls from state leaders for her release from jail.
The Texas attorney general, governor, and lieutenant governor all weighed in Wednesday, but their support has sent mixed messages to business owners who say they’ve followed orders.
“We are anxious to get back to work,” said Mitchell Voss. He and his wife own Voss Salon in Uptown Dallas. The business closed in March and per state orders stayed closed.
“It’s been really tough, it’s been really frustrating to wait,” Voss said.
In far North Dallas, salon owner Shelley Luther did not wait. Her business, Salon A La Mode re-opened two weeks ago, publicly defying the governor’s executive order, which calls for salons to stay closed until this Friday.
When Dallas County served her with a cease and desist letter, she ripped it in two in front of a cheering crowd of supporters. The city of Dallas took her to court. When the judge issued a temporary restraining order demanding she shut down, Luther once again ignored it.
“It’s hard to watch that,” said Voss.
At a hearing Tuesday, Judge Eric Moye found Luther in contempt. “I am not going to shut the salon,” she told him, when asked if she would express remorse and comply. In response, he ordered deputies to take her into custody to serve seven days in jail.
“We just thought that was way over the top,” said Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who wrote the judge a letter Wednesday calling for Luther’s immediate release.
Asked what power Governor Greg Abbott has to shut down any business if a single owner could decide for themselves not to comply, Paxton denied the governor’s order was being violated. “This wasn’t the governor,” he said.
Paxton cast blame instead on local leaders. When asked how it was not the governor’s order being defied, he pivoted.
“It wasn’t the governor that proceeded against her. The governor’s put out guidelines. He is not the one who went to put this woman in jail,” he said.
The governor, though, in press conferences has said cities and counties can enforce the mandates. “What the executive order does, it empowers any law enforcement officer in the state to enforce it, enforceable by a fine or jail time up to 180 days.” Abbott said at a March 31 press conference.
The city’s lawsuit claims that’s what it was trying to do.
Governor Abbott released a statement Wednesday saying a jail sentence should only be used as a measure of last resort. “Compliance with executive orders during this pandemic is important to ensure public safety, however, surely there are less restrictive means to achieving that goal than jailing a Texas mother,” it read.
Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick chimed in, too, offering to pay Luther’s fine and serve house arrest in exchange for her freedom. His office confirmed to CBS 11 News he made a $7,000 donation to a GoFundMe account in Luther’s name.
As of Wednesday night, more than 14,000 people had donated nearly $500,000 to the fundraiser. The judge has ordered Luther to pay $500 for each day she opens her business before Friday, when all salons will be allowed to open. That would equate to maximum of $4,500.
Constitutional law attorney David Coale says Luther’s actions created little leeway for Judge Moye. “If somebody comes in and refuses to obey an order and then tears it up and then comes in and looks the judge in the eye and says, ‘I’m not going to obey your order’, the judge has no choice,” he said. “The court’s order has to be obeyed or law and order breaks down.”
A lack of repercussions for someone in violation of an executive order, Coale said, would set an example. “One case here, one case there doesn’t seem like a big deal, but if 10,000 other people around Dallas look at her and say, ‘She’s like me,’ and open the next day, you have an enforcement problem,” said Coale.
As he prepares to reopen Friday, Voss says, support for a business owner who has not followed the rules does feel a bit unfair. “She’s now raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, gotten publicity,” he said.
Paxon, though, said he’s not encouraging anyone to ignore the governor’s orders. “I said, the punishment doesn’t fit the action. Prison time for this poor woman is not the right remedy.”
As of Wednesday night, Luther remains in Dallas County’s Lew Sterrett Jail.
The attorney general said there’s nothing he can do to change that, only increase awareness of what’s happening.
Luther’s attorney told CBS 11 he has now filed a motion with the Texas Supreme Court asking its justices to order her release.