Judges stayed silent while, in case after case, House Speaker David Ralston used his position to delay hearings for clients of his private law practice, keeping alleged crime victims waiting years for their day in court.
Now a proposed law puts the onus on those same judges to make sure lawmakers don't abuse legislative leave — their right to put off court hearings because of legislative duties. Some lawmakers and those who’ve been affected by Ralston’s delays question whether judges will be willing to stand up to a powerful state figure who can influence judicial budgets or throw his support behind their opponents come election time.
“One person is abusing this process and that’s the speaker,” Rep. Scot Turner, R-Holly Springs, told the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. “We are talking about one of the most powerful people in our state.”
Under the proposed measure, if a judge decides a case has been pending too long or that a delay would conflict with the interests of justice, the request for leave can be rejected.
But under State Bar rules, judges already can ask why lawyer-lawmakers can’t be in court or pressure them to offer an alternate date. Such action was rare when it came to Ralston, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News examination found.
Ralston has downplayed the controversy. Facing calls to resign from fellow Republicans, he took to the chamber podium last month and blasted the news media about reports that he misused his position. Nothing he’d done was legally or ethically wrong, he said.
Still, to address concerns, Ralston appointed a panel to examine legislative leave. That committee’s recommendations, captured in House Bill 502 and Senate Bill 38, would end that automatic right when the Legislature is out of session and require lawmakers to explain the legislative duty that is keeping them from court.
In an opinion piece published in the AJC, Ralston said “not one judge or prosecutor, in the two judicial circuits involved, has ever raised issue with my requests for legislative leave.”
The AJC, however, found court documents showing that opposing attorneys have objected to Ralston’s delays on several occasions. And in a few cases, judges proved they could push back, working around the legislative delays to keep cases moving.
In a written statement to the AJC, Ralston said that he will not comment on the bills so as not to influence the outcome. But he said the controversy about his use of leave has been drummed up, questioning why the issue was brought up in the midst of a legislative session.
“All I have done is respond in as conscientious a manner as possible,” he said.
Sheryl Shinn, who blames Ralston for causing her civil lawsuit against a former business partner to drag out for 12 years, says the bill won’t change anything.
She lost her computer company, filed for bankruptcy and now lives off Social Security. “The majority of the judges are also political, and they are afraid of Ralston,” Shinn said.
‘David has a right’
While few spoke out against Ralston’s legislative delays, court records reveal simmering frustrations that sometimes boiled over. In the case of Jason Brothers, a traveling evangelist accused of raping and molesting a 14-year-old girl, Enotah circuit District Attorney Jeff Langley vented in open court when Ralston didn’t show up for a scheduled hearing.
Ralston’s law partner was there, without their client, and told the judge they’d forgotten to put the hearing on their calendars and that Ralston was in Atlanta on legislative business.
“I stand here shocked at what I’m now hearing,” Langley said, according to a transcript, “that after a conference call with the court in which this counsel came to realize that something had fallen through the cracks, and they did not notify their client of a hearing set for today on a case that is five years old that has been continued many, many times by the defense.”
In comments to the AJC, Ralston said a young associate of his handled the case and included Ralston’s name as co-counsel as a routine practice for criminal cases. However, Ralston had identified himself as “lead counsel” in a letter to the judge the year before.
The Brothers case dragged on another year and a half. Ralston’s associate has since left the firm to become a judge, and Ralston is Brothers’ attorney of record. A trial is scheduled for July.
Other times, prosecutors and attorneys implored judges for help, to no avail.
“One of our judges telling David Ralston what to do? Highly unlikely.” —Lawyer Clifford Lancey
Shinn’s former attorney, Clifford Lancey, said he approached Judge Roger Bradley after an unrelated hearing had ended. Ralston represented Shinn’s former business partner, whom she accused of selling client accounts without her consent.
Every time a trial date came up, Ralston got a delay, Lancey told the judge.
“I said to him, ‘This is a problem here. This woman’s life is being ruined by this suit… We can’t get a hearing,’” Lancey said. “And he just blew it off. He just said, ‘David has a right to do it.’”
Lancey finally told Shinn he couldn’t help her and backed out of the case. He said giving judges a means to scrutinize legislative leaves won’t change anything.
“They could already do that,” he said. “And one of our judges telling David Ralston what to do? Highly unlikely.”
Bradley, now retired, declined to comment. Ralston said he understood that Shinn hadn’t been represented by counsel for several years now.
Pushback was possible
Judge Hugh Stone, also now retired, said he was never intimidated by Ralston, who he says is a longtime friend.
As a semi-retired senior judge, Stone heard an insurance fraud case involving a Decatur attorney, Mark Sallee, charged with helping a client file a claim on a burned-down house that she had already sold. Sallee’s first attorney filed a series of motions that slowed the case for about a year. Then, with trial set for March 2012, Sallee discharged that attorney and hired Ralston, knowing that the speaker would be serving in the General Assembly during that time. In a 10-page court filing, the prosecutor balked.
“The defendant thinks by manipulating the court in this manner he is guaranteed a continuance,” the assistant DA wrote.
While Stone upheld Ralston’s right for the delay, he agreed that Sallee had hired Ralston as a “dilatory tactic.”
The judge ordered Ralston to name a new date, and the case went to trial four months later. A jury found Sallee guilty of insurance fraud, and he was sentenced to 10 years probation.
“I’m responsible for moving cases on my calendar,” Stone told the AJC. “When I had a case I wanted to move, I simply called him and said, ‘Give me a time to try the case,’ and he always did.”
In response to the AJC’s questions, Ralston said in a written statement that the objection concerned Sallee’s tactics, not his. “The filing (from the prosecutor) points out that, ‘It is the defendant’s actions the State wishes the Court to regulate. Not the actions of counsel,’” Ralston said.
Last year, a burglary case in Union County had a similar outcome when another prosecutor objected to Ralston’s delays. Douglas Breedlove was accused of breaking into a man’s house and stealing a jug of coins.
“When I had a case I wanted to move, I simply called [Ralston] and said, ‘Give me a time to try the case,’ and he always did.” —Retired Judge Hugh Stone and friend of David Ralston
After Ralston’s sixth delay, the assistant district attorney asked for a scheduling conference. “This matter has been continued numerous times due to the legislative duties of said Hon. David Ralston,” the prosecutor wrote, adding that he expected Ralston’s duties “to continue to be extensive.”
Judge N. Stanley Gunter set trial for December. Breedlove pleaded guilty and got five years probation.
Sitting on their hands
More typically, prosecutors stay quiet and judges do nothing as cases drag on, though legal experts say lengthy delays can thwart justice and put the public at risk. The AJC/Channel 2 analysis found Ralston stalled court dates for clients accused of child rape, child abuse, domestic violence, aggravated assault and DUIs.
He delayed trial 28 times for one client charged with aggravated child molestation in Cherokee County and the district attorney eventually dropped the case. The defendant still faces related charges in Gilmer County that, because of Ralston’s delays, have been pending since 2009.
Ralston filed for at least seven delays in a domestic abuse case against a man with previous convictions for attacking women.
Crate Hollis Weaver has a 2007 DUI arrest still pending, with the case delayed at least 16 times because Ralston cited legislative responsibilities.
With that case unresolved, in 2014 the Gilmer County Sheriff’s Office accused Weaver of pointing a drawn bow and arrow at four officers who responded to a domestic disturbance at his home, threatening to kill them. Ralston is also Weaver’s attorney in that case.
Weaver remains free on bond. The judge handling both the cases, Mary Elizabeth Priest, did not return calls from the AJC.
In October, Brock Harper was charged with beating a man with a hammer in North Carolina while Ralston kept an earlier aggravated assault case against Harper delayed for more than four years.
Nothing in Harper’s case file shows any objection to the speaker’s seven delays by Superior Court Judge Brenda Weaver, chief judge of the Appalachian Judicial Circuit. The judge did not respond to an interview request.
There are 32 state legislators who make their livings as lawyers, and the proposed changes in state law would govern how and when they can delay court with legislative leave. But the proposed changes will likely have little effect on most, the AJC found.
Most lawyer-legislators who do trial work have not served long enough in the General Assembly to have used leave to delay court cases for years. And most, other than Ralston, would be hard pressed to claim legislative duties outside of session.
But the AJC reviewed court records over the past decade of two prominent lawmakers to see how often they sought legislative delays. House Judiciary (Non-Civil) Committee Chairman Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, who is entering his seventh year in the Legislature, and Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, who has served in the Legislature since 1987, each have filed for leave during the session but not outside of it.
There was no evidence of them filing repeated delays that put off cases for years.
Oliver said her use of legislative leave is driven by several factors, including that her law office is a short drive from the Capitol.
“I go to court during the session. I was in court March 6, two weeks ago, in a matter where my client needed relief,” she said. “I’m very sympathetic to people who have hours to travel to get to their office or courthouse.”
Oliver declined to comment on Ralston’s use of legislative leave, but she noted that Ralston has many more public demands on his time and that she and the speaker practice different kinds of law.
“My practice is a civil practice, which is very different,” she said. “My clients are very anxious to get their cases over with.”
Ralston’s advisory panel inserted its recommendations into both the House and Senate bills to increase the odds that they will pass into law.
There has been little debate on the bills. The panel held no public hearings while developing the recommendations and made no apparent attempt to reach out to those who have spoken publicly about their concerns. Outside of two brief appearances in committee, legislators haven’t debated the proposals.
The bills are a good bet to pass given the process was conceived, although not directed, by Ralston himself. Action must come by Tuesday, the confusing and fast-paced final day of the 40-day session when lawmakers vote on dozens of bills, often with no floor debate.
The process has concerned government transparency advocates.
“This is a huge deal,” said Sara Henderson, executive director of Common Cause Georgia. “It’s affected a lot of families who have been on the other side, across the table from Ralston. Now we are ramming this through and the public and no organizations are going to have a say.”
Rep. Turner, one of a handful of Republican lawmakers to call on Ralston to resign as speaker, has introduced a fix of his own: House Bill 675, which would forbid the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House from holding outside employment while in office.
The bill has one sponsor and comes as the Legislature prepares to adjourn, so it stands little chance of passage. But Turner hopes it sparks discussion on whether being speaker of the House is a part-time job.
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