One of the most powerful men in Georgia politics, Republican House Speaker David Ralston, is accused of using his position to delay court hearings for years at a time on behalf of his legal clients.
Ralston is paid a $99,000 annual salary as Speaker, but his position is only part-time. He also works as an attorney in the North Georgia town of Blue Ridge. Under Georgia law, judges must delay court hearings if they interfere with the legislative schedule of attorneys who serve in the House or Senate.
In reporting published this week, Ralson is said to have used this rule to delay cases of assault, child molestation, terroristic threats, drunk driving, and more – in some instances for years at a time.
David Ralston “worth every penny” as defense attorney
According to a joint investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB-TV published on Wednesday, Ralston regularly uses a 1905 Georgia law to delay court cases for his clients. The law requires judges to grant a continuance if an attorney has a duties to perform as a member of the state legislature.
Georgia’s General Assembly meets for 40 days every year starting every January. Ralston regularly requests delays outside of session sittings, however. The Journal-Constitution found that in the last two years Ralston has said notified courts he was unavailable for 93 days, 76 of which fell outside of a General Assembly session.
The delays have kept some defendants out of court for years.
Ralston client David Shell was indicted by a grand jury for aggravated assault four years ago. He stands accused of assaulting his girlfriend at a campsite, and has a past record of attacking women. As a repeat offender he faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
Shell credits the delays Ralston has requested for his still being a free man.
“That’s why I gave him $20,000 bucks,” he told Journal-Constitution. “He’s worth every penny of it.”
Another Ralston client is still free six years after being indicted for raping a 14-year-old girl.
Speaking to WSB-TV, the girl’s mother spoke of her frustration since the charges were first brought. “I had no idea at that point that, all these years later, that we would have so many trial dates that had been canceled. Every time we get our hopes up to get some release from the past and to be able to move on, you know, it’s always a setback.”
One DUI defendent represented by Ralston is still awaiting trial over a decade since he was first charged. Another client, accused of “enticing a child for indecent purposes,” has had his trial delayed 14 times since 2009.
Ralston declined to make his calendar available to reporters. The Georgia legislature exempted itself from the Georgia Open Records Act.
The mother of the alleged child rape victim believes Ralston uses the legislative leave law deliberately to help his clients. “I think Mr. Ralston knows exactly what he’s doing,” she said.
Ralston responds to allegations
Although he refused to appear on camera, Speaker Ralston released a statement to the media via email:
“Legislative leave (OCGA 9-10-150 & OCGA 17-8-26) is a long-established provision of Georgia law which recognizes the unique needs of a citizen-legislature and protects the independence of the legislative branch of state government.
“Like other members of the General Assembly, I utilize this provision outside of the legislative session, when necessary, to attend to my legislative duties as both a state representative and Speaker of the House.
“I’m honored to serve the members of the House of Representatives and to be one of 236 citizen-legislators serving our great state. I appreciate that I’m not the only one who must balance the responsibilities of my profession and my elected office.”
According to David LaBahn, CEO of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, delaying a case can be a huge advantage for the defense. Over time, memories fade, witnesses disappear, and victims get frustrated.
“As it relates to the criminal defense community, they’ll say that the criminal case is much like fine wine. It improves over time,” he said.
LaBahn also thinks it would be possible for Ralston to claim scheduling conflicts whenever he wants to.
“You can pretty much find on any day with so much legislative staff, especially per capita, you could find an excuse,” he told WSB.
Ralston’s client David Shell maintains his innocence of assault charges, but acknowledges the delays have improved his chances of being found not guilty.
“The longer things wait, the less you remember,” he told the Journal-Constitution. “People move away – they’ve gone. And if they can’t find this girl – which I don’t even know where she’s at anymore anyway – and when it comes to court and they ain’t got a witness or whatever, what are they going to do then?”
Ralston was first elected to the Georgia General Assembly in 1992 when he successfully won a seat in the State Senate. He was elected to the House in 2002, and was elected Speaker in 2010.