Victory for Utah Braider

September 24, 2012

In August, IJ won a major economic liberty victory in a case that attracted national media attention. Judge David Sam of the U.S. District Court in Utah struck down as unconstitutional Utah’s requirement that hairbraiders have a government-issued cosmetology license. IJ filed the legal challenge to Utah’s licensing law on behalf of African hairbraider Jestina Clayton.

Jestina—whose name means “justice” in her native language—learned to braid in Sierra Leone when she was just six years old. She came to the United States after fleeing the horrible violence of her home country’s civil war. In college, she began braiding hair for money. She continued her business after graduating because it combined the opportunity to provide for her family with the flexibility of being a stay-at-home mother.

But even though the state licensing board previously said she did not need a license to practice her trade, the board threatened to shut down her braiding business. Under Utah law, Jestina could not be paid to braid hair unless she first spent thousands of dollars for 2,000 hours—one full year—of government-mandated cosmetology training. Jestina went to the licensing board and to legislators to explain why Utah’s licensing scheme made no sense for hairbraiders, but no one was willing to change the laws. Instead, at one hearing, a pack of licensed cosmetologists and cosmetology schools showed up en masse to protest against any relaxing of the licensing rules.

In our constitutional system, the courts offer a sanctuary where people go when government violates their rights, so Jestina and IJ filed suit to stop Utah’s unconstitutional licensing scheme. Judge Sam ruled decisively for economic liberty. He recognized that “[t]he right to work for a living in the common occupations of the community is the very essence of the personal freedom and opportunity that the Constitution was designed to protect.” As an engaged judge, he then looked at the facts of the case and realized that “[m]ost of the cosmetology curriculum is irrelevant to hairbraiding. Even the relevant parts are at best, minimally relevant.”

Accordingly, he ruled that “Utah’s cosmetology/barbering licensing scheme is so disconnected from the practice of African hairbraiding, much less from whatever minimal threats to public health and safety are connected to braiding, that to premise Jestina’s right to earn a living by braiding hair on that scheme is wholly irrational and a violation of her constitutionally protected rights.”

Jestina is now back to work.

“I am so grateful,” she exclaimed. “It has been a long time that I’ve been fighting with Utah just so that I could braid hair. I am relieved that the judge protected the right to earn a living when the other branches of government did not.”

Utah could still appeal its loss. If it does, IJ will vindicate economic liberty again, and we will keep going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary. No one should have to hire a lawyer or a lobbyist just to go to work.

Paul Avelar is an IJ Arizona Chapter attorney.

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