SALT LAKE CITY -- A Utah woman who braids hair to supplement her family's income has won a federal lawsuit against the state over its licensing process for her craft, arguing state regulations violated her right to earn a living.
A federal judge ruled this week that the state's requirement that Jestina Clayton get a cosmetology license to braid hair was "unconstitutional and invalid" because regulations are irrelevant to Clayton's profession.
Clayton, 30, sued last year after she found it would be illegal to run a hair-braiding business without a license, in part because of public health and safety concerns. Clayton said she learned how to braid hair as a 5-year-old in her West African home country of Sierra Leone, and she was doing it at her suburban Salt Lake City home to support her three children – ages 7, 5 and 1 – while her husband finishes school.
"I'm excited. I can't believe it," Clayton said of the ruling. "You go in with the hope, but sometimes things don't go your way."
U.S District Judge David Sam in Salt Lake City said Utah's cosmetology licensing requirements are so disconnected from hair-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."
Sam said the state couldn't prove a cosmetology license for hair-braiding is needed to protect public health. He also said Utah has never investigated whether any health or safety threats are associated with the practice.
Paul Murphy, spokesman for the Utah attorney general's office, said Friday that lawyers are reviewing the case and have not decided whether to appeal.
Utah is among at least a half-dozen states that require braiders to have full cosmetology licenses, while others such as California and Arizona exempt braiders from such laws. About a dozen states, including Texas and Florida, require specialized training, such as more than 30 hours in the classroom.
In 2005, Mississippi removed a requirement that African-style braiders complete 1,500 hours of cosmetology classes or 300 hours of wig course work. Professional braiders there now must take a self-guided test and pay a $25 fee.
Utah requires that anyone working with hair, including hair braiders, take about 2,000 hours of coursework for a cosmetology license. The state argues working with hair requires knowledge of sanitation and sterilization to protect public health.
But the state acknowledged the curriculum and exam it requires for a cosmetology license do not deal with hair-braiding, according to the judge's ruling.
Clayton said she wouldn't have minded taking classes to get a license, as long as they're pertinent to her work.
"I would definitely do it, but that's not what they were saying," she said. "They were saying, `Waste your time on something that you'll never use.'"
Paul Vincent Avelar, an attorney with the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Justice, which represented Clayton, said cases like Clayton's that involve regulations for braiders are not unusual. The group has argued eight such cases in the last 20 years, including a victory in California in 1999 that led to a change in the requirements there, Avelar said.
"It's important for judges to protect the right to earn a living," he said. "That's a protection that's guaranteed to us by the federal constitution, but it's meaningless unless judges enforce it."