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Editorial: Why Speaker of the House David Ralston should step down or be removed
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David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives, holds a press conference in Atlanta on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018. - photo by David Barnes

David Ralston should step down as speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives. If he refuses to do so, the members of the House should replace him.

That is a sad position for us to have to take. As a young man just out of college, Ralston was briefly an employee of The Times newsroom. When he became speaker in 2010, we were able to report with some pride that he was a former member of our staff.

He has, through the years, been a political friend to North Georgia. He initially brought a sense of calm and stability to a position badly in need of rebuilding after the debacle created by his predecessor, Glenn Richardson.

But the evidence that Ralston has abused the trust placed in him by his legislative colleagues, and in so doing has tarnished the position he holds, is overwhelming. Ralston’s political position is so badly bruised that he will forever serve under a tainted banner of mistrust, and rightfully so.

The Times editorial board

Staff members

  • Norman Baggs, general manager
  • Shannon Casas, editor in chief

Community members

  • Cheryl Brown
  • David George
  • Mandy Harris
  • Brent Hoffman
  • J.C. Smith
  • Tom Vivelo

In February, an investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB-TV found that on dozens of occasions Ralston had used his legislative position as an excuse for delaying court cases for defendants he represented in his role as an attorney based in Blue Ridge. A subsequent probe conducted independently by a former FBI agent put the actual number of postponements granted Ralston because of his legislative duties at close to 1,000.

None of which is to say that the speaker did anything illegal. State law allows those serving in the General Assembly who are also attorneys to ask the courts for delays when their legislative duties make it necessary to do so. It’s a law that Ralston helped to draft. And which he has abused.

The law exists in recognition of the fact that most members of the General Assembly are part-time lawmakers who also have full-time jobs. For the majority, legislative duties consume much of the first four months of the year, during which the General Assembly is in session, after which demand for their time as lawmakers diminishes.

The speaker’s position is different in that there are duties and responsibilities that can require him to spend time on the job beyond the normal legislative session. In recognition of that fact, the speaker’s salary is set at roughly $99,000 a year, compared to the $17,342 paid to most other legislators.

The two separate investigations show that Ralston repeatedly asked that court calendars involving his clients be rearranged in order to satisfy legislative demands on his time. Some of those clients were involved in major felonies; some have seen their cases drag out for years without resolution. At least one went so far as to say he spent money with Ralston in expectation of having his case delayed time and again.

But the two recent investigations are not the first time Ralston’s scheduling of court cases to accommodate his legislative responsibilities has been questioned. In 2016, a special master appointed to look into a client’s complaint to the State Bar about Ralston’s handling of a civil case noted that delays were related to the speaker’s legislative obligations.

That complaint resulted in a reprimand based on Ralston’s inappropriately giving the client money from a trust account, and no action on the issue of delays. But the subject was raised and Ralston was aware even then that it was an issue of concern.

Subsequent to the revelations earlier this year, state Rep. David Clark of Buford called on Ralston to resign, an effort that was joined by nine other Republicans in the state House. To appreciate how much political courage doing so required, remember that the speaker is virtually all-powerful in the House, doling out favors and punishment to members of the legislative body. Crossing Ralston is not something any member would do lightly.

Those who have called for him to step down are justified in doing so, and we join the chorus. We hope that members of our local delegation will step forward and join the opposition effort.

Ralston represents a House district that includes Fannin, Gilmer and parts of Dawson counties. It is up to the voters of that district whether they want him to represent them under the Gold Dome as a legislator. But as speaker he represents all of the state’s residents, and the people of Georgia deserve better. We hope local residents will make it clear to their representatives that they do not want as speaker someone who makes a mockery of both his political position and the state’s judiciary system.

Ralston has denied misuse of his position. He has blamed the press for making an issue of something that should not have been. He has blamed the investigators for a lack of understanding of the courts. He has blamed political opponents for calling for his resignation.

He has not taken responsibility for failing to manage the workload of his legal practice in a realistic manner, for manipulating the courts, for using his position as a handy excuse to keep his clients away from judges and juries, for gaming the system.

He has not acknowledged doing anything wrong; apparently does not believe that he has done anything wrong. And therein lies the problem.

In response to one of the investigations, the AJC quoted Ralston as saying that those who had looked into his handling of legal cases “didn’t have anything critical to say about my performance as speaker. I think they just think I’m a bad lawyer.”

He does not understand that the issue exists because he is speaker, not in spite of it. He does not understand that by intermingling his state position with his private personal practice, he has irretrievably woven the two together. He does not understand that it is his position as speaker that allows him to take liberties with the courts that others could not take.

He does not understand that he has squandered the trust of those who selected him to fill the position many feel to be the second most powerful in state government. And because he does not understand, he should no longer be in that position.