As Gov. Greg Abbott moves toward reopening Texas and restoring citizens’ livelihoods, a North Texas county judge appears to be leading a statewide rebellion of local officials to defy the governor and keep Texas locked down. With more than 2 million Texans unemployed because of the government’s shutdowns, it’s up to Abbott to bring power-hungry local officials into line.

One of the many unforeseen effects of Abbott’s executive orders shutting down the Texas economy has been the unleashing of local tyrants such as Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins.

Jenkins ran far past Abbott’s orders by banning in-person worship in the county, mandating masks, and trying to extend the county’s shelter-in-place orders to late May.

Only a grassroots uprising stopped his rampant authoritative edicts, with their outcries motivating the county commissioners—led by John Wiley Price—to gut the mask mandate and require Jenkins to seek commissioner approval before extending shelter-in-place beyond April 30.

It took Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton to force Jenkins, and other local officials, to back down from banning in-person worship. Still, Jenkins tried to regulate components of worship services, such as how many people could attend.

But it didn’t end there. After Dallas salon owner Shelley Luther announced she was going to reopen her salon, Jenkins immediately tried to shut her down with a cease-and-desist order. Abbott, however, reached out and indicated he was willing to talk with her and work out how to reopen all salons earlier than originally planned.

Despite Abbott showing a willingness to reconsider jailing business owners for violating his own executive order, Jenkins refused. Instead of rescinding his cease-and-desist order and beginning his own conversation with Luther, Jenkins and the local government hammered harder: the City of Dallas sought a temporary restraining order against Luther, the county’s director of health and human services—Dr. Philip Huang—signed an affidavit arguing to shut down her salon, and then Luther was imprisoned by Judge Eric Moye for violating the TRO and refusing to apologize for it.

Sources expressed to me that it appears Moye went that far to keep Jenkins happy.

The day and a half after Luther’s imprisonment were eventful, as grassroots cried out for her to be set free, sending Abbott scrambling to fix the problem. The Texas Supreme Court eventually stepped in and is currently trying to sort out the mess.

After nationwide media attention, Luther was released, but that wasn’t the end of Jenkins and his despot obstinance. While Abbott currently continues the slow process of reopening the state, Jenkins appears bound and determined to defy Abbott as much as he can.

On May 4, he issued an order forcing law offices to stay closed, because Abbott didn’t specifically list them among the businesses allowed to reopen. Jenkins also managed to block Commissioner Price’s crusade to reopen Dallas and flipped Commissioner Theresa Daniel—normally a strong Price ally—to get shelter-in-place extended to mid-May. Price expressed concern about if the county could do that. “The governor’s order would prevail,” Russ Roden, an attorney in the Dallas County district attorney’s office, told commissioners in response to Price’s question on May 5.

While commissioners are still blocking Jenkins’ attempts to punish citizens for not wearing a mask, Jenkins issued an updated edict saying parents are responsible for making sure kids under 10 wear a mask, and businesses “may refuse admission or service to any individual who fails to wear a face covering.”

Jenkins also has local government officials across the state following his lead. Austin Mayor Steve Adler extended the city’s shelter-in-place order to May 30, while Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt extended the county’s own order to June 15. Adler is also threatening businesses to track all of their customers.

San Antonio’s city council arguably violated the First Amendment by regulating free speech, while West Texas’ Ector County Sheriff’s Department rolled up with a tank and a SWAT team when a bar reopened earlier than Abbott’s order allowed, arresting the bar owner and 10 of her supporters. The City of Plano threatened a gym owner with fines for leading workouts in a parking lot, despite everyone practicing social distancing.

Monday, Jenkins signaled he’s trying to wrest control of the reopen strategy from Abbott, issuing a new color-coded set of guidelines that, if followed, show little sign of Texans ever returning to a normal life. You’ll note the harsh guidelines maintained for hair salons even in Code Green—the “new normal.”

All of this is being done under the banner of responding to the Chinese coronavirus, despite the doomsday health predictions nationwide continually being exposed as wildly inaccurate and Texas’ numbers being far lower than projected. Overflow hospitals have even been delayed, and patient volumes have declined.

On Tuesday, Attorney General Ken Paxton issued letters to Bexar, Dallas, and Travis counties, as well as Austin’s and San Antonio’s mayors, identifying where their orders defy Abbott’s and saying the orders are “unlawful and can confuse law-abiding citizens.”

Jenkins replied, saying in part, “We intentionally modeled the public health guidelines based on the Governor’s recommendations, never imagining he did not want his own guidelines followed.” That doesn’t sound too much like repentance or an intention of backing down yet.

Local officials have gone mad with these emergency powers. Texans need their governor to step in and put a stop to this local tyranny while allowing local governments to move forward with reopening faster than planned, if they feel it’s safe. Concerned Texans may contact Gov. Abbott.

This blog has been updated since publication. 

Robert Montoya

Born in Houston, Robert Montoya is an investigative reporter for Texas Scorecard. He believes transparency is the obligation of government.