AP NEWS

Harris County appoints replacement for judge who quit by mistake

April 10, 2019

A divided Harris County Commissioners Court declined to give County Court At Law Judge Bill McLeod a reprieve Tuesday after he inadvertently resigned last week, opting instead to appoint a replacement.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said letting McLeod remain as a holdover judge until a special election for the seat in 2020 was too risky, since he almost would certainly have to recuse himself from cases to which the county was a party, as Commissioners Court would have the power to remove him at any time.

Instead, the court voted 3 to 2 to appoint Houston lawyer Lesley Briones to hold the seat through next year, on the recommendation of Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

“I think voters deserve a judge who can be absolutely independent, as he was elected to be,” Hidalgo said. “This would put us in the untenable position that he would no longer be an unbiased person, because he would be beholden to Commissioners Court.”

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack and Precinct 4’s Jack Cagle voted against the appointment. Cagle told Briones he could not support her since the nomination was made just minutes earlier and he did not have a chance to review her qualifications.

Briones, a Yale Law School graduate and general counsel to the Laura and John Arnold Foundation until December, accepted the appointment on the spot.

“I have deep respect for the law and I respect that you made a hard decision, and I respect the consternation in this room,” Briones said. “But know that I will work extremely hard for everyone.”

The Harris County Attorney’s Office concluded last week that McLeod had triggered a provision in the Texas constitution which considers an announcement by anyone holding a judicial post that he or she is seeking another office an automatic resignation.

Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray said McLeod had designated a campaign treasurer to run for chief justice of the Supreme Court of Texas. He also had announced his intent to seek the position in online posts and was listed in Harris County Democratic Party literature as a candidate.

“These things are out there, and if you combine them all together… (we) reached the conclusion that Judge McLeod did trigger the automatic resignation provision,” Ray said.

McLeod told the Houston Chronicle last week he was unaware his announcement would force him from the bench. In a tearful, four-minute address to Commissioners Court Tuesday, he apologized for his error and asked for a second chance.

He held up a copy of the Texas Constitution and noted the document is hundreds of pages long.

“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,” McLeod said, at times halting to collect his thoughts. “I have always had the best interests of every single resident in Harris County at heart.”

McLeod said he no longer plans to run for the state Supreme Court and pledged to remain dedicated to his county post. He said he would not challenge his resignation in court, fearing a lawsuit would cost the county a large sum.

A number of speakers spoke in support of McLeod, describing him as a compassionate, fair jurist and a hard worker who deserves another chance. Thunderbolt Transmission owner Skip Hartley, whose business had a case before McLeod, praised the judge’s professionalism.

“It would be a shame to not let him continue on the bench,” Hartley said. “This man is good government and, by golly, we need to keep him.”

The three Democratic members who control the court were not swayed. After a brief executive session, Garcia made a motion to appoint Briones to the post, drawing cries of disapproval from McLeod supporters. At one point, a deputy constable shouted to restore order, a rare occurrence in Commissioners Court.

His fate known, McLeod sat silently, his hands clasped. He shook hands with Radack before departing the chamber.

Friends and colleagues hugged Briones after the meeting, which dragged past seven hours. They described her as a sharp lawyer who would excel as a judge.

“She is the kind of person who is regularly, every day, at work before the sun goes up, and she leads by example,” said Sandra Thompson, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center.

Garcia defended nominating and approving Briones on such short notice instead of delaying a decision until the next court session in late April so members of the public could offer input.

Her name appeared nowhere on Tuesday’s agenda and many residents in attendance greeted her nomination with surprise.

“The court has to continue to move,” Garcia said. “It’s incumbent on us to keep the docket moving.”

Garcia said he previously did not know Briones, but heard she was interested in the post, reviewed her credentials and determined she was well-qualified.

McLeod was one of more than 50 Democratic judges who swept into office in November. He is the second jurist of that group to leave the bench. Criminal Court Judge Cassandra Hollemon died in February after a brief illness.

McLeod remains eligible to run for his previous seat in 2020.

Zach Despart covers Harris County for the Chronicle. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at zach.despart@chron.com .