William “Bill” McLeod, a well-respected Houston-area trial judge, was contemplating running for the Texas Supreme Court in the 2020 general election. Earlier this month, he stated as much on his Facebook page, unaware that such a declaration triggered an automatic resignation from his current position under Article 16, Section 65 of the Texas Constitution.
Harris and his supporters appealed the automatic removal, but this week Harris County commissioners voted 4-1 to uphold the resignation. It appears to have been a difficult decision, given that McLeod was a popular and experienced judge who won a sizable majority in the last election.
Still, there were important countervailing considerations:
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.”
McLeod argued that he relied primarily on the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct for resolving questions about social media use, and was unaware of the constitutional provision that automatically triggered his resignation. During the hearing, McLeod “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.’”
Unfamiliarity with the state constitution is a curious defense for a man who wishes to join the court chiefly responsible for interpreting that document. In any event, the commissioners seem to have done the right thing in response to a very awkward situation. Other judges, take notice!