A closely divided Harris County Commissioners Court voted 3-2 last night to appoint someone else to the technically vacant judgeship occupied until that moment by Bill McLeod. See “Judge Accidentally Resigns” (Apr. 4) and “Judge’s Supporters Say the Texas Constitution Sucks” (Apr. 9). I had expected them to just not do anything, based on case law suggesting to me that doing nothing would allow everybody to just ignore the mistake at least until the next special election in 2020. McLeod’s four-year term wouldn’t expire until 2022, and technically he could just stay put until then (according to me). But requiring him to run in the next special election (if not calling an immediate special election) seemed like a reasonable response to what most would agree was a reasonable mistake.
After a seven-hour meeting in which many people showed up to support McLeod, the group voted to appoint Houston lawyer Lesley Briones to the judgeship through next year. The rationale given was that it was “too risky” to let McLeod stay until 2020 because he would likely have to recuse himself from any cases to which the county was a party, given that under the circumstances the county would effectively have the power to remove him at any time. That would make sense if McLeod were the only judge in Harris County (that’s where Houston is), but in fact there are lots. If he had to recuse himself from a few cases between now and 2020, that doesn’t seem like a big deal.
I therefore wondered if this might have been a party-line vote, and it looks like it was, but if so the alignment was the opposite of what we have come to expect. McLeod is a Democrat, and so were all three of the commissioners who voted to appoint Briones (whose name had not been circulated beforehand). So, an odd result.
I have not seen any negative comments at all about McLeod, apart from the whole business about not knowing the state constitution boots you out of office if you announce you’re running for another office. And that does seem like a reasonable mistake to make–he’s not the first one to make it, after all. (Also, the Texas constitution does suck.) The commissioners could have appointed him as his own replacement, or just done nothing. In fact, I think it could be argued that appointing a replacement instead of having a special election is unconstitutional. McLeod has said he’s not going to challenge the decision in court, though, which is probably for the best. By the time that was decided, it’d probably be time for the 2020 special election anyway.
In which, of course, McLeod will be eligible to run, and could very possibly win, just as he would almost certainly have won a snap special election today (if they have those). That would mean the voters the provision is presumably intended to protect would have declared they didn’t need the protection. All of which makes the whole situation indisputably strange.