Georgia lawyer-legislators would no longer be able to automatically delay court hearings for their private clients any time they want under a proposal by a panel appointed by House Speaker David Ralston, who has come under fire for his use of legislative delays.
Judges currently have little recourse when lawmakers say they have other legislative business to tend to. But the new law, if approved, would empower judges to overrule a legislator if they determine that his or her legislative business isn’t as crucial as the court case at hand.
Ralston’s panel revealed its recommendations Tuesday, suggesting the law be changed to allow prosecutors, opposing counsel or “an interested party” — such as a crime victim — to object to such leave requests when the General Assembly is not in session. A judge would then weigh such factors as how long the case has been pending, the impact of the proposed delay, the nature of the legislative duties behind the request, and the “interest of justice in the granting or denial of the request.”
The recommendations come after a joint Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News investigation found Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, frequently used the claim of legislative duties to delay trials for clients of his private law firm. Ralston, who has served as House speaker since 2010, delayed cases when the General Assembly was in session and often when it was not, rarely specifying what legislative responsibilities prevented him from appearing in court.
In one case, where a Ralston client was charged with aggravated child molestation in Cherokee County, the speaker delayed trial 28 times between 2010 and 2014. Eventually, the district attorney dropped the case, citing a variety of reasons, including that the victim, who by then was an adult, was uncooperative.
The same client still faces related charges in Gilmer County, but he has never stood trial there either.
Those who’ve been most affected by Ralston’s delays – alleged crime victims and opposing parties in civil suits – said they doubt the panel’s proposed changes to the law will have any effect on Ralston himself, given the power he wields.
Amanda Mosher, who has been speaking publicly against Ralston’s use of legislative delays since 2012, pointed out that the chief judge in the Appalachian Judicial Circuit wouldn’t grant the AJC or Channel 2 an interview, and the district attorney refused to answer questions about Ralston. Ralston represented the man accused of killing her husband and 4-year-old daughter in a car crash, and Mosher said his continuances stalled the case for five years.
“They would never question his continuances, because they won’t question him,” Mosher said. “He’s still going to abuse this law.”
The proposed changes are carried in House Bill 502, which preserves the century-old guarantee automatically granting leave requests filed for court appearances scheduled during the legislative session and for three weeks after adjournment. In fact, the bill would expand that automatic period to include seven days prior to any session. Lawyer-legislators would also retain the right to automatic leave for legislative committee meetings, regardless of when they occur.
State Rep. Andrew Welch, R-McDonough, presented the bill before the Senate Special Judiciary Committee, but he quickly gave way to former State Rep. Edward Lindsey, one of the co-chairs of an advisory committee picked by Ralston to study the issue.
Lindsey praised the “very strong, bipartisan group” of current and former legislators, lawyers, judges and a victim’s rights advocate who worked on the proposal.
“We worked very hard over the past two and a half weeks,” Lindsey said, adding that the panel talked “to various folks in Georgia who were concerned about this issue” in developing its recommendations.
Jydon Carpenter, who’s been waiting more than four years to see her ex-fiancé in court on domestic violence charges, questioned why the group didn’t reach out to her and others who say they were victims of Ralston’s clients. She said allowing judges to overrule delays is a good idea, but it won’t work if judges are intimidated by a legislator’s power.
“I just think it’s a cheap excuse to say that he’s trying to fix something that he has no desire to fix,” Carpenter said.
Ralston named the advisory group earlier this month amid calls by a handful of Republican legislators to step down. In an emotional speech before the House, Ralston said he had done nothing wrong in his use of legislative leave but suggested the law should change.
Lindsey served five terms in the House before leaving in 2014 in an unsuccessful bid for Congress. He is a lobbyist for multinational firm Dentons and has a number of clients with business before the General Assembly this session.
Lindsey co-chaired the committee with former House Democratic Rep. Ronnie Mabra, a personal injury attorney. The two men co-authored an article in the Georgia Bar Journal in December saying the law "provides some respite during session so that lawyer-legislators can manage the needs of their constituents with the demands of legal practice."
While in office, Lindsey had advocated to expand the legislative leave law to cover any time legislators say they must tend to official business. That change was made in the closing hours of the 2006 legislative session by a six-member conference committee that included Ralston as one of its members.
Lindsey said the advisory panel recognized that lawyer-legislators had to represent their districts and their clients, but “as officers of the court, they have duty to promote justice in our society.”
House spokesman Kaleb McMichen said Ralston had no comment on the proposed changes, saying the speaker had pledged not to interfere with the process.
“He is devoting his energies in these final days of the legislative session to moving the state forward on critical issues like transit, health care reform and rural initiatives,” McMichen said.
The advisory committee never met in public. Instead, members conferred over the telephone.
“We had a pretty good idea what needed to be done given the level of experience our panel had,” Lindsey said. “We felt like it had been pretty well vetted over the last month and a half or so.”
A joint investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News last month revealed how House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge attorney, has used “legislative leave” to delay some criminal court cases for years on end, including cases of alleged child molestation, child cruelty, domestic abuse, aggravated assault and DUI. The AJC also found Ralston had a hand in tweaking the state law that allows him to put off court hearings even when the Legislature is not in session. The changes made Georgia’s law among the most permissive in the nation, the AJC found.