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Shelley Luther

Coronavirus and the State Supreme Court

Just a reminder, nearly half of the State Supreme Court is up for election this November. You know, in case you had opinions about their recent opinions.

Typically not top of mind for voters, the nine Republican justices of the Texas Supreme Court have come under the spotlight during the coronavirus pandemic with a slate of high-profile and controversy-generating moves.

Actions on bailevictions, debt collections, vote-by-mail and a Dallas salon owner named Shelley Luther have foregrounded the court in a year when four incumbent justices face reelection — making it easier, Democratic challengers say, to make the case against them.

Last week, the high court lifted its coronavirus ban on evictions and debt collections, put in place in March as the economy shut down and hundreds of thousands were added to the unemployment rolls. And the justices temporarily put on hold a lower court ruling that expanded vote-by-mail access during the pandemic. Both decisions have infuriated some voters and energized the Democratic Party.

This month, the court ordered the release of Luther, who was jailed for contempt of court after refusing to shutter her salon under coronavirus orders; earlier this spring, it sided with state officials in limiting how many inmates could be released from county jails, which have become hotspots for disease.

Democrats, who have not won a seat on the state’s highest civil court in more than two decades, have reclassified the typically sleepy races as a “top-tier priority,” a designation party officials said comes with digital ad spending. And some candidates have already begun to speak out publicly against high court decisions they say disenfranchise voters and risk their safety.

“I think people’s eyes are opening up,” said 3rd Court of Appeals Justice Gisela Triana, one of the four women running for Supreme Court on the Democratic ticket this year. “What has been the sleepy branch of government … has woken up.”

There’s more and you should read the rest. For obvious reasons, these races are largely going to be determined by the Presidential race – if Joe Biden can run even with or ahead of Donald Trump, one or more of the Democratic candidates can break through. It surely wouldn’t hurt for their to be some money spent on these races, in part just to make sure voters are aware of them and in part to highlight some of the decisions that are not exactly in line with public preferences, but there’s only so much the individual candidates can do about that. In case you’re wondering, I have one Q&A from a Democratic candidate for Supreme Court from the primaries, from Judge Amy Clark Meachum.

On a more sobering note:

Justice Debra Lehrmann

One day after presiding over a hearing on the state’s mail-in ballot controversy via videoconference, Texas Supreme Court Justice Debra Lehrmann says she and her husband have tested positive for COVID-19.

“We began to exhibit symptoms last week, despite diligently complying with stay-at-home rules,” Lehrmann wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “Thankfully, this has not interfered with #SCOTX work, as the Court is working remotely. We are grateful for your thoughts & prayers.”

Her diagnosis marks the first known coronavirus case of a top state official. The justice did not immediately respond to requests for an interview but told the Dallas Morning News that she and her husband Greg had fevers and body aches early last week before getting tested at an Austin drive-thru testing center.

She also told The News that their Houston lawyer son, Jonathan, his wife Sarah and their six-month-old son Jack, who had been visiting them every other week, stopped and are believed to also be infected.

Her tweet is here. I wish Justice Lehrmann and her husband all the best for a swift recovery. (She is not on the 2020 ballot, in case you were wondering.)

The Hair Affair

I have a hard time wrapping my mind around this story, so to save myself a little brain power I’m going to outsource it.

Lisa Falkenberg:

Let’s be clear about something: Shelley Luther, the Dallas-area salon owner-turned-folk hero, wound up in jail this week because of her very public, very theatrical refusal to follow Abbott’s very own order.

Abbott’s executive order, which preempted local orders, delayed the reopening of salons as part of a phased-in approach to restart the Texas economy responsibly.

And like Abbott’s other orders issued during this outbreak, it specified stiff consequences for noncompliance: A fine not to exceed $1,000, up to 180 days in jail, or both.

So why, as soon as Luther’s case got widespread attention, did he begin to condemn local authorities who enforced it?

“Throwing Texans in jail who have had their businesses shut down through no fault of their own is nonsensical, and I will not allow it to happen,” Abbott said in a statement.

Allow it? Technically, he ordered it. Even Northeast Tarrant Tea Party leader Julie White McCarty saw through Abbott’s hypocrisy: “Governor Abbott gave orders putting severe limitations in place,” she wrote on Facebook. “Governor Abbott is now condemning the enforcement as if he’s innocent.”

[…]

But Luther held court for days in front of TV cameras. She didn’t just violate an order to close her salon – she tore it up. When a veteran, 65-year-old Dallas judge gave her an easy out if she’d just apologize and follow the law, she scoffed in defiance. So, he did what judges do: found her in contempt in court.

She could have taken the deal and gone home to her kids and waited until she could open legally on Friday.

Clearly, Luther and her legions of admirers had turned her into a cause. That’s why she went to jail — to draw attention to what she believes is a violation of her rights. And that’s the point of civil disobedience. While others have advanced noble causes such as suffrage and equality, Luther did it to defend her right to work even if doing so puts her workers, neighbors and customers at risk amid a deadly pandemic.

But hey, if she wants to be the hero, a rebel with a cause, the patron saint of social distancing scofflaws, she can’t play the victim, too.

Christopher Hooks:

The conflict really kicked off on April 25, at a protest in front of the Frisco City Hall calling for the reopening of shuttered businesses. Shelley Luther, the owner of Salon à la Mode, took center stage. She had gained local publicity for reopening her business in defiance of Governor Greg Abbott’s shutdown order. By way of enforcing it, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins had sent her a cease and desist order—and, as Abbott had laid out in his order, a $1,000 fine. (The governor also threatened violators with up to 180 days in jail.) In front of a cheering crowd, Luther ripped up the document. There she stood: she could do no other.

Your move, governor. On April 27, at a press conference, Abbott laid out his vision for unwinding his shutdown order. On May 1, his “phase one” would go into effect, allowing retail businesses and restaurants to partially reopen, as long as they followed certain guidelines. In mid-May, assuming things had gone well and COVID-19 infection numbers weren’t spiking, he declared that he would move Texas to “phase two” and allow more businesses to open. Hair salons, barbershops, gyms, and bars could welcome customers back in once the state had collected “two weeks of data to confirm no flare-up of COVID-19” after phase one, he said.

Why the different standards? Well, barbering and hairstyling involve sustained intimate contact, in an environment where customers are coming and going over the course of the day. Barbershops and salons provide a much more potent risk for viral transmission than, say, a Home Depot. And why two weeks? That’s the minimum period required to get a sense of whether the virus is in submission, according to public health experts. Though the coronavirus has a median incubation time of about five days, some of those infected don’t show symptoms until about twelve to fourteen days after infection.

Abbott got pushback from all sides. Some thought he was moving too fast while others complained that he was acting too slowly. Setting that aside, he deserves at least a little credit for the fact that unlike some governors—the fella who rules over our unfortunate brothers and sisters in Georgia, for one—Abbott at least had a plan. With dates. A 66-page manual. An order of operations. Something you could make into a flowchart. Less dangerous businesses first, more dangerous businesses later. Capiche?

[…]

Now, the question of what to do with those who violate public health directives—who put the public at risk indirectly—is a tricky one. Many liberals and conservatives now find agreement in the idea that no one should be put in jail for nonviolent crimes. The situation is trickier when, like Luther, violators are given many, many chances to conform to the law and refuse. It’s a question that we’re probably going to have to face again, as we struggle to adjust to having COVID-19 as a neighbor, and it’s going to be difficult every time.

Citizens of South Korea or Denmark may like big government telling them what to do to stay safe, but we’re America, baby, and we’re high on Alex Jones’s brain-healing powder. We’re a country that’s fighting a culture war about whether wearing masks makes you a wimp, and where men complain loudly on television that the pandemic is making it hard to buy lawn fertilizer.

It’s notable, perhaps, that Shelley Luther shows up in at least one other pandemic-related local news story in the last few months. On March 11, KHOU interviewed Luther and her boyfriend, Tim Georgeff, as they boarded a cruise ship in Galveston. Were they worried about getting on an enormous floating petri dish in the middle of a pandemic, not long after the entire Diamond Princess had been quarantined in Japan? “Well, for one, I have a real good friend who’s a doctor,” Georgeff told the reporter. “It’s really nothing more than a severe cold.”

But there’s one point that’s worth triple-underlining, and it’s the strangest part of the whole salon saga. Judge Moyé has been cast as the villain, the oppressor, whose puppetmaster is Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins. It’s important to listen to Moyé’s words as he sentenced Luther. He was convicting her, he said, because of the rather sensible proposition that “the rule of law governs us … Society cannot function when one’s own belief in the concept of liberty permits you to flaunt your disdain for the rulings of elected officials,” Moyé said.

Here’s the thing. One of the “rulings” in question here is by Abbott, who, if you need reminding, is the Republican governor of Texas. Moyé, a Democrat, is defending Abbott’s prerogative in ordering business closures for public health reasons. Abbott isn’t alone in this, of course. The president, the governor of Texas, the Dallas county judge, and an assortment of both Democratic and Republican mayors in North Texas all agreed that Americans should cool it in April. This group may never agree on anything ever again, but they agreed on this. And yet the Republican officeholders are urging conservatives to train their fire on Moyé and Jenkins.

Ross Ramsey:

She’s not the only Texas beautician arrested for tending to customers during the pandemic — just the one who got the attention of the top politicians in Austin. Consider the story of two women in Laredo busted in April for offering nail and eyelash services in violation of pandemic-spurred restrictions. Ana Isabel Castro-Garcia was arrested by Laredo police after arranging to do the nails of an undercover cop posing as a customer. Brenda Stephanie Mata was arrested for a similar transgression, offering eyelash services to an undercover officer. Nails and lashes weren’t on the list of essential services under that city’s “COVID-19 Emergency Management Plan.”

Illegal grooming is hardly of interest to the average neighborhood crime watch or the FBI — whether it takes place in Laredo or in Dallas — but the law is the law.

Maybe it’s a big-city thing. State officials got after Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo for a mandatory mask law that included fines for violators caught without masks in public. That furor also didn’t reach Laredo, where state officials had ignored a similar law for weeks. Maybe state officials just don’t pay attention to Laredo, or the Houston masks and the Dallas hair were just convenient attention-getting distractions for stressed-out politicians in the middle of a scary pandemic.

Whatever the case, salons can reopen in Texas on Friday to 25% of their regular capacity, freeing the state’s politicians to argue about other essentials.

Dale Hansen:

Those who blame the judge, saying it was a political stunt to put her in jail, are ignoring the real stunt here.

Luther’s GoFundMe page has raised more than half a million dollars, because it is true, there really is one born every minute. But I’m assuming she can feed her family now, and she will share her bounty with all those who can’t.

No one likes the position we’re in now. The virus has made it incredibly hard on almost all of us. But to excuse the actions of Luther, would create a society that I don’t think any of really want to live in.

[…]

We’re not in this together, we never have been. And all the sweet commercials won’t make it so.

Gov. Abbott and our other state leaders have proven again that the rule of law doesn’t matter, and court orders can be ignored as long as you are well-to-do and white.

If Shelley Luther’s beauty salon was in South Dallas the lieutenant governor would’ve never paid her fine and she’d still be in jail. And not a single one of you would be blaming the judge.

There. May Shelley Luther sink back into obscurity, and may we all remember the words of a long-ago statesman who said “We must all hang together, or we will surely hang separately.”