The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A newly elected county judge resigned abruptly. Just one problem: It was an accident.

Judge William McLeod, of Harris County, Tex., with his staff. In March, McLeod declared his run for the Texas Supreme Court. But, as he later discovered, doing so invoked a provision in the state's constitution that may force him to leave his post. He's now fighting to stay on the bench. (William McLeod) (William McLeod)
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Judge William McLeod thought he’d had a pretty good first two months on the bench at Harris County Civil Court. So good, he figured, he was ready to take a run at the Texas Supreme Court.

So, he did what aspiring justices do in that state: filed paperwork with the Texas Ethics Commission declaring his intentions and, for good measure, changed the heading on his website to reflect those new ambitions.

“I want to make a difference across the State of Texas,” he wrote.

But instead of preparing a bid for another, higher office, McLeod is now scrambling to hang on to the one he has — his judgeship threatened by a clause in the state constitution.

McLeod had accidentally resigned.

“I messed up,” McLeod said in an interview with The Washington Post on Wednesday. He said he hadn’t combed through the Texas constitution before announcing he’d run for the Supreme Court. “The mistake was it was an archaic 180-page document that I did not know contained this particular provision. I guess I did not scour everything that could possibly disrupt a run.”

Shortly after he declared, in early March, about 60 days after taking office, a friend and fellow judge warned him that he may have inadvertently invoked Article 16, Section 65 of the constitution, which considers any declaration of candidacy for another office an automatic abdication of that official’s current position.

McLeod, realizing his error, removed from his website the references to his Supreme Court run and retracted his announcement, saying he’d rather finish his four-year term as county judge.

But the Harris County Attorney’s Office informed McLeod that there was no going back.

“It’s our opinion that the facts as we understand them constitute an announcement of candidacy for another office,” Robert Soard, the first assistant county attorney, told The Post. “And that triggers the constitutional provision.”

The law is supposed to discourage officeholders from using their positions as platforms to run for other offices, furthering their careers on the taxpayers’ dime, Soard said. He couldn’t remember another case of an official accidentally running afoul of the provision.

Soard’s office gives legal advice to the Harris County Commissioners Court, the legislative body that will decide whether it will replace McLeod or allow him to stay in office. Under the constitution’s holdover provision, McLeod said, the commission could leave him be. But if he’s able to remain, McLeod may have to run for his seat again, in a 2020 special election.

“That’s kind of my punishment,” he said. “Like, ‘Okay, McLeod, you kind of screwed up’ … But that’s fine; bring it on. The people are going to vote me in.”

The commission will discuss McLeod’s fate at an April 9 meeting. Three of the five members are Democrats, so, if the vote breaks along party lines, McLeod — a self-described liberal — should be safe.

A spokesman for Commissioner Jack Cagle, a Republican, said in an interview that Cagle would decide how to vote during the meeting but added that he didn’t know of “any opposition that Commissioner Cagle has to Judge McLeod.”

But McLeod is still nervous — “anything could happen,” he said — and he plans to argue at the meeting that he should be allowed to stay on and run in the 2020 special election. And, he said, he won’t be alone.

When he learned he’d have to fight to stay in office, McLeod began rallying the support of the voters who put him there in the first place, helping him win election in 2018 with nearly 55 percent of ballots cast. His backers organized phone drives, did pro bono research to bolster his constitutional case and flooded social media with the hashtag “#ISTANDWITHMCLEOD.”

Some said cutting short his tenure would be usurping the will of the people who elected him.

“I can think of 647,502 reasons why Judge Bill McLeod needs to stay in that seat,” Monica Roberts, author of the blog TransGriot, wrote on Facebook. “That was the number of Harris County voters (including me) who wanted him on that bench for his full term of office.”

McLeod contends that the commissioner should regard his diverse constituency as an asset no potential replacement could match, a reason he should remain on the bench.

“I definitely have the community behind me,” he said, adding by way of example that Texans from all walks of life attended his swearing-in. “There wasn’t a single community that wasn’t at my investiture. I even had Amish people at my investiture.”

However, some commenters were less willing to give McLeod a second chance. Responding to Roberts’s post, one said, “The good judge should know that ignorance of the law is never a defense especially one written into the state constitution.” Another asked, “Why is he above the law?”

McLeod says he understands that argument — he’s a law man himself — but he said he’s making a legal case that he should be allowed to stay.

“I’m not asking for anything special; I’m just asking for the whole law to be considered,” he said, referring to the holdover provision.

The experience, McLeod said, has humbled him. County judge is the first elected position he has held, and if he can hang on to it beyond next week, he doesn’t plan on running for something else anytime soon — not the Supreme Court, not in the next election, or the one after that.

“Oh, no, sir,” he said. “I think we’ve already been down that road.”

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