Civil Liberties in the Age of COVID-19

Texas has turned into a legal and political battleground as individuals, businesses, and the Courts wrestle with how best to protect the general population without infringing on people’s civil liberties.   Two recent cases have made headlines as the limits of Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s Executive Orders have been challenged.

On May 1, 2020, Executive Order GA-18 went into effect which permitted Texas dine-in restaurants to reopen with specific limitations, including limiting the number of patrons and minimum distancing between parties.  The Blue Onyx, a gentlemen’s club in Houston, Texas opened on Friday May 1, 2020 at 12:01 AM with a menu and procedures in place to ensure social distancing.  City of Houston officials and police shut down the club shortly after opening, claiming that the Blue Onyx was in violation of the Governor’s Executive Orders and threatened the owner with citations and arrest.  Undeterred, Blue Onyx filed an emergency petition in Federal Court in the Southern District of Texas for a Temporary Restraining Order against the City.  The self-proclaimed Judicial Diva, District Judge Vanessa Gilmore (appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1994), issued a Temporary Restraining Order permitting the Club to immediately reopen and prohibiting the City of Houston from arresting any employee or representative of the Club.  Judge Gilmore found that the Club had made the necessary showing that immediate and irreparable injury, loss, or damage would occur unless the City was ordered to refrain from closing or attempting to close Club Onyx pursuant to Governor Abbott’s Executive Order GA 18.

In another case, Shelley Luther, a single mother who operates a hair salon, defied Governor Abbott’s Executive Orders and opened for business.  City and County officials in Dallas issued several citations for Ms. Luther’s failure to comply with the Executive Order requiring hair salons to remain closed since late March.  In the 14th Civil District Court, Judge Eric Moyé (a Democrat who has held the elected position since 2008 and is up for re-election on November 3, 2020), issued a restraining order against the salon and Luther for violating the Governor’s Executive Orders.  When the salon reopened in defiance of the restraining order; Judge Moyé held an emergency hearing on Tuesday, May 5, 2020.  At the hearing, Judge Moyé issued a $7,000 fine and sentenced Ms. Luther to seven (7) days in jail for civil contempt.  The order was surprising to many given the fact that Texas (and Courts across the United States) have released thousands of non-violent offenders from jail in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to limit spread of the virus.  The Judge’s ruling sparked political ire from Republicans across Texas and the United States and has become a political rallying cry.  Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton wrote an open letter calling for Ms. Luther to be released from jail immediately and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick chipped in that he would serve out her sentence on house arrest so that Ms. Luther could be home with her family. Twelve District Judges in Dallas County responded in an Open Letter calling the Texas politicians’ public comments and attempted interference with the judiciary improper. A GoFundMe page for Shelley Luther has already raised over $500,000.

In response, on May 6, 2020 Governor Abbott issued a new Executive Order permitting the re-opening of hair and cosmetology salons in Texas starting on Friday May 8, 2020.

To read a copy of Judge Gilmore’s Temporary Restraining Order, please click here.

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