Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton said Wednesday that the seven-day jail sentence a Dallas salon owner received for defying orders to keep her business closed was excessive — with Paxton calling for Shelley Luther's immediate release.
“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 in a statement, calling state district Judge Eric Moyé’s order to jail and fine Luther, owner of Salon a la Mode, “a shameful abuse of judicial discretion.”
Paxton also penned a letter to Moyé demanding he immediately release Luther, arguing that a community that had already "voluntarily reduced its 'jail population ... by about one thousand people' due to" the coronavirus pandemic "can certainly stand to release one more."
Paxton also pointed to Abbott's latest directive, which will allow hair salons and barber shops to reopen Friday under certain guidelines, arguing that it was "unjustifiable" to confine Luther "well after she could be operating her business and providing for her children."
Later Wednesday, Moyé, along with the 11 other state civil district judges in Dallas County, signed onto 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. "Please do not communicate with the Court in this manner further."
Paxton’s letter to Moyé comes 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.
Soon after Paxton's statement Wednesday, Abbott issued one that said he disagreed “with the excessive action” by the judge and suggested that "there are less restrictive means" than jailing Luther while ensuring public safety during the pandemic. Abbott did not indicate in his statement whether he plans to commute Luther's sentence, which a number of hard-line Republicans have called on him to do since Luther's sentencing Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said Wednesday after Abbott's statement that the Luther sentencing is "unacceptable" and offered to take her place by being in house arrest for a week "so she can go back to work." Patrick also said he had not yet talked to the governor about the situation.
"I have to look at the law, if he's able to act in the manner, or pardon for that local issue," Patrick said on a tele-conference call with reporters. "Right now, if [Luther] hasn't had the money, I'll step up and pay the $7,000 fine, and if there's already some money raised, I'll make the difference to get us to $7,000."
Luther reopened her salon days after Dallas County issued a stay-at-home order in March. She continued to operate her business despite a cease-and-desist letter from Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins and a temporary restraining order Moyé signed that told Luther her business must remain closed. Luther said she kept her salon running out of necessity — "I need to feed my family, and my stylists could not feed their families," she said Tuesday — and that she only recently received the federal loan she applied for. Moyé found Luther in contempt of court, sentencing her to a week in jail and ordering her to pay thousands of dollars in fines.
Similar violations against stay-at-home orders have been reported in other parts of the state, though they have not generated the amount of drama that the Luther case has in recent days. In Laredo, for example, two women allegedly violated the community's emergency management plan for offering beauty and cosmetic services from home. Both were arrested last month and charged with violating the plan, which the Laredo Morning Times reported carried a punishment of up to 180 days in jail, a $2,000 fine or both.
As the Dallas situation has intensified, Luther has become a galvanizing figure for some Republicans who have rallied around the salon owner, arguing that individual liberties have been infringed. Elected officials have weighed in on social media, calling the issue "beyond ridiculous" and "absolute lunacy."
"This is crap," state Rep. Jeff Leach, a Plano Republican, tweeted Tuesday. "@JudgeClayJ - you are a good man. No doubt about your sincerity. But you should be ashamed of yourself for allowing this to take place in Dallas County. Steward and lead. Don’t rule!"
A number of Democrats, meanwhile, emphasized that Luther violated multiple orders and argued that the "outrage" over the salon owner was a double standard to the state's criminal justice system.
"Salon owner sentenced to 7 days in jail = outrage," state Rep. Joe Moody, an El Paso Democrat, tweeted Tuesday. "Ignoring the plight of thousands of inmates in jails and prisons in TX = business as usual. I’m growing weary of the righteous indignation of folks who never once gave a second thought to the incarcerated. #txlege"
State Rep. Chris Turner, a Grand Prairie Democrat who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, tweeted similar sentiment Wednesday: "To all who are distraught over proud lawbreaker Shelley Luther getting 7 days in jail, I'd like to introduce you to Crystal Mason. Sentenced to 5 YEARS in prison for erroneously casting a provisional ballot while on probation."
Warren Norred, Luther's attorney, told Dallas radio host Mark Davis before Abbott's statement Wednesday that he was working on submitting legal filings to secure her release before the end of her sentence.
"We're going to ask the Supreme Court to spring her," said Norred, who is also a member of the State Republican Executive Committee. "There are rules for these kinds of things. ... This is not about wanting a haircut — it's about livelihood."
Alex Samuels contributed to this report.