After repeatedly threatening and violating the rights of citizens, a North Texas county judge’s powers have been severely limited by the county’s commissioners. One commissioner even said he’ll request that the state attorney general determine the legality of some of the judge’s most recent orders.
A figure unknown to most Texans, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins has gained notoriety across Texas for his heavy-handed orders in response to the Chinese coronavirus, as well as his hostility toward any critics. At first, Jenkins went along with Gov. Greg Abbott’s already egregious, mandatory stay-at-home and economic shutdown policies. But, like many other local officials, he went even further than Abbott’s orders, going so far as to ban in-person worship and at one point even threatening to send the Texas National Guard door to door to see who was infected and who wasn’t—despite the fact that the National Guard reports to the governor, not him.
On April 7, Jenkins threatened to extend the county’s mandatory stay-at-home policy into May, triggering an outcry from the Dallas grassroots that mobilized citizens and pressured the county’s commissioners to take action. On April 30, the commissioners voted to require Jenkins to seek their approval before extending mandatory stay-at-home policies any further.
On April 15, Jenkins issued an order mandating all people within the county to wear masks or face a maximum fine of $1,000 and/or 180 days in jail. Again, furious citizens spoke out. Commissioners John Wiley Price and J.J. Koch called for an emergency meeting during which they slapped down Jenkins’ order again, voting 3-2 to remove all penalties for not wearing a mask. The commissioners allowed Jenkins to retain his power to issue executive orders.
Meanwhile, Abbott has been moving very slowly to reopen Texas, with many businesses still closed or under heavy restrictions and over 2 million Texans unemployed. But while Texans are fighting for Abbott to move faster, Jenkins has been a leader in the effort to keep Texas closed and for local officials to defy the will of the people.
He also fought against efforts to release imprisoned Dallas salon owner Shelley Luther and others like her, who reopened their businesses earlier than the date specified in Abbott’s orders. Instead, Jenkins led the effort to punish her and has defended the judge who ordered her sentence.
On May 15, Dallas County’s stay-at-home policy expired, and Jenkins issued a new set of orders that included banning door-to-door sales, price gouging, and a hostage-at-home policy for anyone who tests positive for the coronavirus.
To bring back mandatory stay-at-home for all county residents would require extending the county’s emergency declaration, which was set to expire on May 20. On Tuesday, Jenkins asked the commissioners for an extension.
That request was met with a very cool reception from Democrat John Wiley Price, the official who has been perhaps most active in opposing stay-at-home policies and enabling businesses to reopen. Price questioned the need to extend the county’s emergency declaration, given the state’s ongoing emergency declaration.
Also critical of an extension was Republican J.J. Koch, who told Jenkins he would only support the extension if the county got an opinion from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Jenkins’ recent controversial order that banned door-to-door sales and forced hostage-at-home policies on those who tested positive for the virus.
“I think Dallas County is capable of making good decisions without having the [attorney general] grade our homework on every sentence,” Jenkins shot back, bringing up Paxton’s prior letter criticizing county orders he called “unconstitutional and unlawful restrictions.”
Jenkins also claimed he didn’t know how to seek an opinion from Paxton, something Koch said he would take care of.
“But still regarding the extension here, I’m only going to vote on this extension if we have in there that we have to meet before any new order is issued,” said Koch.
“I like that,” Price added.
Jenkins pushed back on this threat to further restrict his authority, saying he needs the power to issue executive orders without accountability from the commissioners.
“I don’t know what will happen a week from now,” he said.
“Just don’t issue any new executive orders without us conferring or collaborating,” Price shot back.
Ultimately, Jenkins failed to convince the other commissioners. They unanimously voted 4-0 to extend the county’s emergency declaration to June 12 but took away Jenkins’ ability to issue executive orders on his own. He must now seek approval from the commissioners first.
Shelter-in-place has not been reissued for all residents countywide, only for those who test positive for the coronavirus; however, Koch is seeking Paxton’s opinion on that and other orders from Jenkins.
This article has been updated since publication.