Texas Supreme Court Tosses Contempt Order Against Anti-Lockdown Activist

Texas Supreme Court Tosses Contempt Order Against Anti-Lockdown Activist
A hair salon in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on May 18, 2020. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Matthew Vadum

The Supreme Court of Texas threw out a contempt-of-court order against a small-business owner who was jailed last year for refusing to shutter her business to comply with pandemic-related restrictions.

The temporary restraining order that Dallas salon owner Shelley Luther was said to have violated “failed to set forth the conduct required and the legal basis for its issuance in clear, specific, and unambiguous terms,” the April 9 court decision said.

A year ago, Luther became the face of the movement to resist the sometimes extreme pandemic lockdowns imposed by state and local governments.

Luther’s case became a cause celebre among Texas Republicans who petitioned against her county’s harsh lockdown provisions. She appeared on “The View” and at rallies as she took in half a million dollars in crowdfunding. The conservative support led her to an unsuccessful run for the state Senate, ABC13.com reported.

Conservatives likened her to civil rights figure Rosa Parks, who, in 1955, refused to yield her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Three other black passengers had already complied with the driver’s order that they move.

When he asked Parks, “Why don’t you stand up?” she answered, “I don’t think I should have to stand up.” She was promptly arrested.

This act of defiance by Parks was the catalyst for the Montgomery bus boycott, which bolstered a nationwide push to end the racial segregation of public facilities.

Former U.S. Rep. Allen West, the state’s GOP chairman, had compared Luther to Rosa Parks.

“Shelley Luther is our modern-day Rosa Parks, and she has sparked a movement,” he wrote May 5, 2020, on Twitter.

Days before a court hearing last year, Luther had taken in $18,000 in refundable loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, a sum that would have helped cover costs throughout the pandemic. She later said she didn’t know she was allowed to spend it and, at the same time, believed she couldn’t risk closing her business.

“I am not going to shut the salon,” she said in court.

Separately, Luther said that if she had to “go to jail to prove a point that what they’re doing is totally unconstitutional, then that’s what happens.”

Luther was jailed for ignoring a shutdown order by a judge.

In a Judgment of Contempt and Order of Confinement signed May 5, 2020, by 14th Judicial District Court Judge Eric Moyé, an elected Democrat, the judge found that Luther and her business, S&B Hot Mess Enterprises LLC, doing business as Salon A La Mode, violated a temporary restraining order dated April 28 that directed the salon to cease operating.

The judge offered Luther leniency if she admitted she was wrong, saying:

“If you would like to take this opportunity now to acknowledge: that your actions were selfish, putting your own interests ahead of those in the community in which you live; that they disrespected the executive orders of the state, the orders of the county, and this city; that you now see the error of your ways and understand that the society cannot function when one’s own belief in the concept of liberty permits you to flaunt your disdain for the rulings of duly elected officials; that you owe an apology to the elected officials who you disrespected by flagrantly ignoring and, in one case, defiling their orders which you now know obviously regard to you.”

Luther was sentenced to seven days imprisonment. Her business was ordered to pay $500 per day for criminal contempt for the seven days it operated contrary to pandemic restrictions. The business was also ordered to pay an additional $500 per day for civil contempt “for each day from this day forward during which the Salon remains in operation from the date of the Temporary Restraining Order until May 7, 2020.”

The order stated that “any time the Defendants should wish to purge themselves of their Contempt, they may petition this Court for release from confinement,” provided that they cease operating the salon and publicly “express contrition.”

Luther had previously ripped up a citation at a rally.

“I’m not anyone special,” she reportedly said at the event.  “I just know that I have rights. You have rights to feed your children and make income, and anyone that wants to take away those rights is wrong.”

Luther said she, along with several of her 19 stylists, had fallen behind on paying their mortgages.

“It’s either come in and make money to be able to feed your family, or stay home and freak out.”

Luther was jailed a few days but then released May 7, 2020, after the Supreme Court of Texas ordered her released, “pending final disposition of this case.” The next day, Texas allowed hair salons to reopen with conditions.