Harris County commissioners voted to replace the judge who accidentally resigned by declaring his interest in running for the Texas Supreme Court, not knowing that the Texas Constitution provision said it meant he automatically had to step down from the bench after announcing his candidacy.
In the meeting where scores of people declared passionate support for former Harris County Civil Court-at-Law No. 4 Judge William “Bill” McLeod, asking commissioners to allow him to keep his bench as a holdover official until a special election in 2020, the audience was booing and yelling loudly as commissioners voted to appoint his replacement.
Commissioners voted 4-1, with Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack against, to appoint Lesley Briones, a 2007 Yale Law School graduate who worked at Vinson & Elkins for four years before becoming COO and general counsel of the Laura & John Arnold Foundation, a major philanthropic nonprofit headquartered in Houston.
After her appointment, as people in the room yelled over her, Briones acknowledged the consternation in the room and she said that, once people got to know her, she hoped they’d trust her for her strong work ethic and integrity.
“I am humbled and grateful. I deeply believe in justice and fairness for all. I voted for Judge McLeod and I have deep respect for you, sir. I also have deep respect for the law,” she said. “I love Harris County, and I love this community. … You will see that through my hard work and dedication.”
Earlier in the meeting, McLeod spoke in a shaky voice and paused at times, fighting back tears, to explain how it came to be that he resigned his bench by accident.
He said he relied on the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct to form his belief that he could keep his bench as he ran for chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court. Only later did he learn of the automatic-resignation provision in the state Constitution and said he apologized and accepted ownership of his mistake.
He held up a 2 inch thick stack of white paper and said, “This is the Texas Constitution. It’s got 496 amendments. It’s over 87,000 words. It’s the second-largest state Constitution in our union, and I’m sorry I didn’t have it down.”
Scores of Houstonians advocated passionately for McLeod keeping his bench, saying he was just and merciful, worked such long hours that he practically lives at the courthouse, had formed trusting relationships with communities of color and more.
Eric Dick, an attorney who’s practiced before McLeod, said the judge was a reasonable jurist who delivered justice equally to Republicans and Democrats and plaintiffs and defendants.
“He’s a really decent judge,” said Dick, a trustee on the Harris County Board of Education. “I do not recommend replacing him.”
Harris County Assistant County Attorney Doug Ray said that his legal opinion is that McLeod did trigger the automatic resignation provision in the Texas Constitution. He said the County Attorney’s Office found that McLeod had announced to multiple groups that he was running for the Supreme Court, there was a website about his candidacy and McLeod filed paperwork that listed a treasurer for his campaign.
Ray said that commissioners had two options. They could appoint someone else to take over as judge, until the election in 2020, or they could take no action, which would trigger a holdover provision in the state Constitution, which says the current officeholder remains in office until a qualified replacement is in place.
However, leaving McLeod in office would raise one thorny legal issue.
The county itself is a litigant in cases pending in County Court-at-Law No. 4, explained Ray. McLeod would likely need to recuse himself from those cases, because it raises a question of judicial ethics, since he knows that, if the county disliked one of his rulings in its cases, the county had the power to replace him.
Commissioners adjourned into executive session to discuss the matter, and when they returned, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said that, if the court kept McLeod as a holdover, it would set a precedent for other county officials to run for another office and keep their current position. Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said the court needed to adopt a fair and consistent policy, although it would be painful in McLeod’s situation.
Commissioner Adrian Garcia agreed, saying, “Nothing is more painful than to have to make this difficult decision, but there is too much on the table for us to risk, as we contemplate how to handle this matter. I think the only way to resolve it is to move forward.”
Garcia said Briones would be an outstanding replacement. The court then heard from at least 15 witnesses who supported Briones’ appointment, saying she was an impressive litigator, had a strong moral compass, had a passionate commitment to public service, kept a keen attention to detail in the law and that she would respect everyone before her court and form trusting relationships with minorities, just as McLeod had done.
Ellis noted that there would still be a special election in 2020 for the bench, and McLeod would be free to run again.