For Georgia’s Republican House Speaker David Ralston, the controversy about whether as a criminal defense lawyer he improperly used a state law to delay court trials for the benefit of his clients has been an exercise in misunderstanding.
“The reporting has not been complete,” Ralston, of Blue Ridge, said in an interview on May 15 with members of The Times’ staff and editorial board. The board in an April opinion called for Ralston to step down as House speaker, one of the most powerful positions in state government.
“There has been a lot of misinformation,” Ralston added. “I never used a delay tactic other than for a legitimate legislative reason.”
But in the court of public opinion, as Ralston is learning, whether he misused his elected position may hinge on a couple of questions: What should qualify as an appropriate use of legislative leave? And does political campaigning and fundraising rise to the level of a “legislative duty”?
Georgia law requires judges to reschedule hearings and trials that conflict with the legislative duties of attorneys who also serve in the state's legislature, which is typically in session from January to late March or early April.
The law dates back to 1905, but was expanded in 2006 to include periods in the legislative “off season.” Ralston became speaker in 2010.
History of complaints
This February, an investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB-TV reported that Ralston asked judges to reschedule court cases at least 57 times in the past two years.
A subsequent probe conducted independently by a former FBI agent put the number of postponements granted Ralston because of his legislative duties at close to 1,000.
Ralston has called the news investigations a "media hit piece.”
But the implication was clear and resonating: Ralston had found a legal tactic to push off cases, ostensibly to the benefit of his defendants.
Ralston disputes those numbers, and said he’s comfortable that he has only requested justifiable leaves of absence from court hearings. He listed reasons he has asked for delays including for committee meetings, legislative conferences, caucus meetings and meetings with the governor.
“These numbers look high when you look at them over a 10-year period.” But, he said, “I don’t even lead my circuit.”
Ralston said not all the continuances and delays had been requested by him, that sometimes it takes years to charge and begin prosecuting criminal defendants, and that no judge or prosecutor had ever questioned any of his leave requests.
“Regardless of what people are accused of doing, they are entitled to a fair trial, presumption of innocence, an adequate and vigorous legal defense,” Ralston said. “I have spent 39 years doing that. Frankly, I had more success before I became speaker.”
House Speaker David Ralston on the issueHouse Speaker David Ralston speaks to members of The Times and its editorial board on Wednesday, May 15, 2019, during a meeting concerning complaints with the State Bar of Georgia accusing Ralston of misleading judges when using legislative privileges to delay hearings for clients of his legal practice. Members of the editorial board in attendance include Times General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor in Chief Shannon Casas and community members Tom Vivelo, Brent Hoffman and David George.
When asked if being in the legislature gave him a legal advantage in scheduling cases as a lawyer, Ralston said, “I think the publicity over the last three or four months answers that. I have the most dissected law practice in the state of Georgia.”
Because of his elected position, Ralston said both legislative duties and conflicts of interest limit which judges he can try a case before, as well as calendar availability.
Ralston said he had been bound by attorney-client privilege in defending himself since the accusations emerged, but that he’s now trying to be more aggressive in dealing with the bad publicity.
He was flanked in the meeting with The Times by his own staff and a group of defenders that included former Gov. Nathan Deal, state Rep. Terry Rogers, R-Clarkesville, Rep. Terry England, R-Auburn, Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, and Rep. Chris Erwin, R-Homer, each of whom expressed support and belief in Ralston’s leadership.
“We need a speaker who is a person of wisdom,” Deal said of Ralston. “I think one of the real tragedies we see in our modern legislature is we have so few lawyers.”
The accusations that Ralston has abused or misused legislative leave are not new.
In 2014, for example, his own client filed a complaint with the State Bar of Georgia, which found in its investigation that Ralston had allowed his legislative duties to “adversely affect his representation” of the client.
Two women have filed new complaints this year with the State Bar alleging that Ralston was campaigning when he used legislative-leave to reschedule court hearings.
The women are not Ralston’s clients but rather seeking due process as alleged victims in domestic violence cases.
In an effort to address the most recent criticism, Ralston assembled an advisory group of lawyers, victims’ advocates, judges and others to review the legislative-leave law. A revised law, House Bill 502 was signed into law May 7.
“The law has been changed,” Ralston said. “And the change in the law will allow judges to have more discretion” in scheduling and denying legislative-leave requests.
Additionally, lawyer-legislators would have to provide the judge and opposing counsel with a description of the legislative activity, event or duty that requires their attendance.
“Frankly, I think it was a positive change in the law,” Ralston said. “I stayed out of the way.”
Ralston said adding more judges to state and county courts could help alleviate the need for legislative leave in some instances.
“There are difficulties in scheduling in rural counties,” Ralston said, such as Towns, Fannin and other North Georgia counties where Ralston practices law.
He added that he will keep to his earlier promise not to accept any new criminal defense cases until his current caseload is cleared.
“I don’t enjoy putting criminal cases off,” Ralston said.
But that’s also his reality, Ralston said, when he’s asked, for example, to attend committee meetings in the summer or fall months, when he’s on the campaign trail with his colleagues, sorting out business with the governor or touring House districts across the state to learn about their needs.
“It’s part of the political reality,” he said.
What’s not changing
“Particularly in my job, we are called upon to do a lot of things,” Ralston said. “I learn a lot when I go to a little elementary school in Early County and see the school-based health center, which is the only medical care these kids have access to because the hospitals are all closed down there.”
England, the chair of the House appropriations committee, said Ralston’s visits across Georgia help him guide budgeting decisions.
“I need him seeing things around the state that we’ve done so that the next time that topic comes up … he already understands and sees the need,” England said.
Ralston made it clear he believes campaign and political fundraising events, even in the legislative “off-season,” are legitimate uses of legislative leave and are often combined with other activities in those districts. He said fundraising dinners are usually at night, when court isn’t in session.
“Do I think it’s wrong to do a day’s full of activities like that and then a fundraiser at night? No,” Ralston said.
Nine Republican members of the House disagree, and have called for Ralston to step down or resign, though they represent a small contingent of the Republican majority in the House.
“Those are opportunists looking for blood, and you better be careful of anybody who with the smell of blood will abandon principles,” Deal said, “because they are not the kind of people that you want to have leading anything.”
Ralston described these members as politicians who “have been against me for years.”
“I still think I can govern effectively,” Ralston said. “As we go forward, I don’t know what the future holds for my law practice. But I still feel like I have something to offer the state of Georgia.”
But the notion that perception is sometimes reality, especially in politics, has given Ralston some pause and reflection.
“I got to tell you, at my age, that’s kind of hard to learn that lesson,” Ralston said. “But I’ve learned it. Maybe I need to do things differently and maybe we need to take another look at this law.”
However, when asked again, Ralston said he believed that political campaigning and fundraising constituted legitimate legislative duties that fit the parameters of the leave law.
“A very, very small part of my leaves are solely because of that,” Ralston said, though he did detail several examples, from Americus to California, where he has been called upon to support fundraisers of other Republicans or attend his own. Ralston said the California trip was on behalf of Georgia’s film industry.
“Do I have them for myself? Yes,” Ralston said. “I’m like every other member. I’ve got to raise money to get my message out there.”
And, Ralston said, he would not seek to handicap himself or other elected officials from also doing so.
“Only if every member of the other party does the same thing,” he said. “I’m not going to unilaterally disarm my caucus. Period.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.