Georgia House speaker seeks changes to legislative leave law he used

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston on Monday ordered a review of a state law that allows state legislators to ask judges to delay court cases, even as he forcefully denied abusing that law to benefit criminal defendants who hired him as their attorney.

Ralston called for changes to the law after an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News found that he filed 57 requests to delay court cases during a two-year period because he was busy with his other job as one of the state's most powerful elected officials.

In an emotional 20-minute address to House lawmakers, the Republican from Blue Ridge said he did nothing wrong, ethically or legally, and lashed out at pundits and rivals who have accused him of misusing his power.

Ralston is under pressure from 10 Republican state representatives who signed a resolution last week asking him to resign, and he acknowledged that the legal delays raised questions about the law he used on behalf of his clients. He said he won't accept new criminal cases until four pending ones are resolved.

"I would be concerned, too, if I had heard or read those things without knowing all the facts," said Ralston, who has led the state House since 2010. "I have an obligation, not to dismiss their concerns, but to be mindful that the consent of the governed is a vital block in the foundation of our government."

Ralston said he’ll create a bipartisan panel composed of lawmakers, judges, attorneys and civic leaders that will investigate how to change the law dating to 1905. There were no immediate details about who would be tapped for the commission, which Ralston said would be appointed this week.

“I choose not to be defensive, angry or paranoid. Because I believe that would be a disservice to this House and this state,” he said. “I choose instead to try to grow and learn from this moment.”

His remarks were greeted with a standing ovation by most lawmakers, including key Democratic leaders who have largely remained silent. But several of Ralston’s staunchest critics in both parties pointedly remained seated with arms crossed.

‘He is wrong’

The Republicans who have called for him to resign, led by state Rep. David Clark, said they remain dissatisfied. Clark said he couldn't stand by while justice was delayed for the alleged victims of Ralston's clients, including a traveling evangelist who is accused of raping a 14-year-old girl.

"There remains a lack of recognition that his actions have caused people harm. Continuing to say he has done nothing wrong dishonors those still seeking justice," said state Rep. Scot Turner, a Republican from Holly Springs. "I respectfully disagree with Speaker Ralston when he describes this as doing nothing wrong. I do not say this lightly. He is wrong for using his position to prevent justice from being served in cases like these."

In his speech, Ralston said the attacks against him were politically motivated. Clark, a Republican from Buford, is considering a run next year for the 7th District U.S. House seat. Republican U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall has said he won't seek re-election.

Ralston said his opponents are putting themselves ahead of the greater good if they try to launch campaigns or attacks against him.

“An examination of all the facts causes me to reject, in the strongest possible way, any accusation or insinuation that I have abused or misused my position,” Ralston said.

While the law allowing legislative leave is more than 100 years old, Ralston was one of six legislators who served on a conference committee that broadened it in 2006. That revision expanded the legislative privilege to cover any time a lawmaker's "presence elsewhere is required."

Ralston had previously refused to comment about his role in crafting the law, but on Monday he said he didn’t play a central part in writing the language.

‘Wrongly vilified’

The resolution calling for him to resign his post won’t reach a vote, but it for the first time established a specific measurement of the GOP frustration about Ralston. And he was likely encouraged by the results.

Clark was the only committee chairman to sign the resolution. Of the remaining nine seeking his resignation, most are lower-profile legislators with little to lose.

Ralston has built a reputation over the past decade as a fierce negotiator who has squelched opposition from his own ranks. He spent the past week trying to keep his fractious Republican allies from erupting in a full-scale rebellion.

He recently held a closed-door GOP caucus meeting that earned mixed reviews from rank-and-file lawmakers. And after days of silence, Ralston and his most ardent supporters are echoing his efforts to present himself as a victim of the media.

They are drawing a line between the beleaguered speaker and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who faced allegations of sexual assault during his confirmation process to the high court.

Urged by a constituent to condemn Ralston, state Rep. Andy Welch, a Republican from McDonough, said he would not make a "rush to judgment, especially after the press and opponents wrongly vilified" Kavanaugh.

Others, such as state Rep. Colton Moore, said the facts were clear to them.

“While legislative continuance is a right all legislators have access to, your use of this right has resulted in unjust delay in violent criminal cases in our state,” Moore, a Republican from Trenton, wrote in a letter to Ralston. “May these victims and those accused have their day of justice.”

Staff writer Chris Joyner contributed to this article.