Ralston case loses a second overseer

A second overseer in the State Bar of Georgia’s case against House Speaker David Ralston has resigned less than a week after he was appointed, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.

Retired DeKalb County Judge Robert Castellani stepped down last week after Ralston's attorney — former Gov. Roy Barnes — questioned whether Castellani had a conflict of interest because his pension and pay as a senior judge are set by the Legislature.

In an order signed last week, Castellani said “given the history of this proceeding and (Ralston’s) request to recuse, the special master will voluntarily recuse himself.”

Barnes' move , however, was less about the judge than it was a volley fired at the Bar. Attorneys for the Bar had previously called on Mark Dehler, the first "special master" in the case, to resign after being named head of the Judicial Qualifications Commission. Dehler resigned late last month before the Bar filed a motion to call for his ouster.

Barnes and Paula Frederick, general counsel for the State Bar, disagree over why the Bar wanted Dehler out. In his filing last week, Barnes claimed Dehler was on the verge of ruling in Ralston’s favor on a key point in the case. He said that’s when the Bar questioned whether Dehler had a conflict because the Legislature also sets the budget for the JQC.

But in a response filed last week, Frederick says Barnes’ “description of events is not accurate” and said Castellani should remain on the job.

She was prompted to call for Dehler’s recusal, she said, over comments Dehler made to reporters about the case and his appointment to lead the JQC.

Regardless, a case that has now lingered for more than a year is in limbo again. The Supreme Court, which has jurisdiction in disciplinary cases against lawyers, must now appoint a third special master.

Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, is accused of violating nine State Bar rules and of allowing his duties as a legislator "to adversely affect his representation" of his client.

Possible outcomes range from a dismissal of the complaint to disbarment. In a Petition for Voluntary Discipline, filed in June, Ralston attorney James Balli of Marietta suggests that the speaker face no more than “formal admonition” or public reprimand. While Ralston acknowledges violating two State Bar rules, Balli argued they were inadvertent.

But the Bar earlier this month said in its own filing that Ralston's account was "inaccurate, incomplete or immaterial," and demanded an evidentiary hearing "where the proof of each party can be tested for accuracy."

In a response filed Monday, Balli said the Bar failed to "produce a scintilla of evidence to support its claims ."