As the speaker of the Georgia House, David Ralston is one of the most powerful men at the state Capitol. Gov. Nathan Deal is the only person at the Gold Dome who has more political clout.
Ralston is in serious danger of losing that power, however, because of the events of the past week.
In addition to serving as speaker, Ralston is also an attorney in Blue Ridge. The conflicts between the two roles resulted in a complaint to the State Bar of Georgia that has been forwarded to the Georgia Supreme Court for review.
For Ralston, this is a very serious situation. If the Supreme Court agrees with the State Bar’s allegations that Ralston violated the rules of professional conduct, it could reprimand him or disbar him.
Some of Ralston’s problems stem from a law the General Assembly passed several years ago that entitles legislators who are lawyers to get a court delay whenever they wish by telling the judge they are claiming “legislative leave.” That is a privilege that no other attorney has.
Ralston had a client who was injured in an auto accident and wanted to file a lawsuit for damages. Ralston took the case, but instead of going to court and proceeding with the lawsuit, he kept claiming legislative leave to delay it. The client got angry at the delays and a complaint was filed.
The State Bar contends Ralston “allowed his interest in being, and his duties as, a member of the Georgia Legislature to adversely affect his representation” of the client. That’s a no-no under the rules of professional conduct.
Ralston is also alleged to have advanced the client $22,000, in part by using other clients’ funds.
That’s also a serious charge for a lawyer to face.
This is not the first time Ralston has been criticized for his use of legislative leave to delay the trial of a case.
In 2005, a man named Joey Truelove and his daughter, Hailey Truelove, were killed in a vehicle crash in Gilmer County. Truelove’s wife, Amanda Mosher, survived the accident.
Authorities subsequently charged a suspect with two counts of vehicular homicide, but the suspect’s attorney was Ralston. The criminal case dragged on for more than eight years without going to trial as Ralston continued to get court delays by claiming legislative leave.
That particular case was the subject of a political ad earlier this year when Ralston was challenged in the Republican primary by Sam Snider.
Amanda Mosher appeared in that commercial and said: “My case was never important to David Ralston. He made me relive that nightmare, again and again. That’s not how we treat people around here.”
Ralston won his primary election with 65 percent of the vote, but he now must contend with the complaint lodged against him by the State Bar.
His situation is similar to the problems faced by two other political figures in recent years.
In 2009, House Speaker Glenn Richardson’s former wife confirmed in a TV interview that Richardson had been involved in an affair with a lobbyist.
In the uproar that resulted from that sensational interview, many House Republican members insisted Richardson had to resign as speaker. Under pressure from his own party, Richardson stepped down and paved the way for Ralston to become speaker.
Last year, Michael Berlon, an attorney serving as chairman of the state Democratic Party, was forced to resign by party activists after he was accused of violating the State Bar’s rules of professional conduct in his handling of a client’s case. Berlon surrendered his license to practice law.
At this time, there are no demands from Republican lawmakers for Ralston to step down as speaker.
“I can assure you with absolute certainty that there will not be any attempt today, tomorrow, next year or anytime in my lifetime to elect someone besides David Ralston as the speaker of the Georgia House,” said Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon.
However the complaint is resolved, Ralston needs to make a choice here. He should either serve as the House speaker and forget about practicing law, or he should resign as speaker to devote his full attention to representing his legal clients.
He can’t do both things and live up to his professional responsibilities.
Tom Crawford is the editor of the Georgia Report at gareport.com. His column appears Wednesdays.