Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo returned to work Monday after taking a two-month leave of absence to get in-patient treatment for clinical depression. 

Hidalgo’s staff did not make her available for an interview, but issued a statement in which the judge said she was “thrilled” to be back in the office. She spent the day getting briefed by staff and responding to constituent messages, and plans to attend next Tuesday’s Harris County Commissioners Court meeting, it said.

“Nobody would think twice about taking time off work to recover from a heart attack or another physical ailment, and it should be the same way for a mental illness,” Hidalgo’s statement said. “With the treatment I’ve received, it no longer feels like I’m in a constant fight against depression. I hope that others who are struggling will look to my experience and feel empowered to get the help they need instead of suffering in silence. ”

Hidalgo’s absence, the third she had taken in a year, garnered support from Democrats and Republicans at the local and state level, with many praising her bravery to publicly share her mental health struggles. 

She also faced criticism from Alexandra del Moral Mealer, Hidalgo’s 2022 election opponent, who published an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle calling on the county judge to either return from her medical leave or resign, arguing the county needed full-time leadership, particularly for the passage of a budget and setting the property tax rate.

As county judge, Hidalgo presides over Commissioners Court meetings, serves as the head of emergency management in case of disasters, and represents the county in many administrative functions.

Last Friday, five Harris County residents filed a lawsuit against Hidalgo calling for her to be “permanently removed from public office due to incompetency.” 

The lawsuit said Hidalgo “abandoned” her office and acted with “gross ignorance of her official duties” and that her “actions amount to more than a mere error in judgment.”

Brandon Marshall, a spokesman for the judge, called the lawsuit “meritless and an absolute joke.”

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee issued a statement saying he was aware of the lawsuit, but his office is not yet involved.

“By law, the case is not active until a judge reviews the allegations and decides whether to issue a citation. Only then would my office be involved. As far as I’m aware, that has not happened,” Menefee wrote.

Hidalgo on Aug. 7 announced her leave of absence to enter in-patient medical treatment for clinical depression. Her office said the judge had been at an out-of-state facility since the end of July and was expected to return in early September. A month later, Hidalgo’s office said she was extending her leave until Oct. 2.
Commissioners Court continued its regular meeting schedule in Hidalgo’s absence, with Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis presiding. The most significant vote Hidalgo missed was the court’s approval of a slightly decreased property tax rate and a $2.4 billion budget — an increase from last year’s $2.13 billion spending plan.

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McKenna Oxenden is a reporter covering Harris County for the Houston Landing. She most recently had a yearlong fellowship at the New York Times on its breaking news team. A Baltimore native, she previously...