Ralston critics push another measure to curb delays of criminal cases

Hailie Massey, left, and her mother Laurie Wilson stand together during a press conference at the Georgia Capitol on Thursday. “The speaker used his powers to grant legislative leave for fancy dinners and fundraising for his campaign instead of trying my child’s rape case,” Wilson said. REBECCA WRIGHT / FOR THE AJC

Last year some GOP lawmakers said they considered the plight of Hailie Massey so disturbing, it moved them to break ranks and call on the powerful House speaker to resign.

At age 14, Massey was sexually abused by a traveling evangelist. But the criminal case against her abuser was delayed for years as Speaker David Ralston, who was his defense attorney, cited conflicting state duties. In response to that and other cases where Ralston used legislative privilege to slow court proceedings for his clients, the General Assembly gave judges authority to override legislative leave.

Now Massey is joining the GOP critics in an effort they say will further limit the ability of attorney-lawmakers to postpone criminal cases for their clients. Under a bill dubbed Hailie’s Amendment, the legislative leave law would no longer cover cases involving alleged sexual or violent crimes.

On Thursday, Massey gave up the anonymity she previously requested and, with her service dog in tow, walked with Rep. Jeff Jones, R-Brunswick, to file the bill.

Hailie Massey, right, watches as Rep. Jeff Jones, R-Brunswick, announces a proposed bill called Hailie’s Amendment at a press conference at the Georgia Capitol. Under the bill, the legislative leave law would no longer cover cases involving alleged sexual or violent crimes. REBECCA WRIGHT / FOR THE AJC

“We will fix this egregious hole in Georgia’s law,” Jones said at a news conference. “This is for the victims. We are not attacking any individuals who are elected or working here.”

Asked for comment on Jones' bill, Ralston's office issued a written statement pointing to changes already made. "House Bill 502, adopted by both the House and Senate and signed into law, affords judges discretion on whether to grant legislative leave to lawyer-legislators," the statement said.

The case against Massey’s abuser, Jason Brothers, took almost six years to resolve.

“We would be so close to thinking that we were going to get closure, and two days before, or the day before we would go, the case would be delayed,” Massey, now 21, said. “And it’s like, well, are we ever going to get this thing processed and done with? Is this something that we’re just going to have to deal with for the rest of our lives?”

Finally, in a plea deal last year, Brothers admitted to two counts of felony sexual battery on a minor and was sentenced to 10 years’ probation. The district attorney said he agreed to the deal because the case was so old.

Hailie Massey, 21, plays with her therapy dog, Eleanor, at the Georgia Capitol on Thursday. Massey has a congenital heart defect and has developed thyroid problems, an iron deficiency and a spinal tumor. REBECCA WRIGHT / FOR THE AJC

“I’ll never be the person that I was,” Massey said. “But I’m slowly, piece by piece, putting myself back together.”

Jones was among 10 conservative lawmakers last year who called on Ralston to step down. The speaker had come under criticism after an Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News investigation detailed how he had used legislative leave to put off cases for clients accused of such crimes as child abuse, rape, assault, terroristic threats and drunk driving, and for clients embroiled in lawsuits.

The speaker responded to the controversy by appointing an advisory panel to study the law. Then Ralston supported amendments giving judges authority to deny legislative delays through a four-part test.

Criticized last year for his numerous delays in criminal court cases, House Speaker David Ralston responded by appointing an advisory panel to study the legislative leave law. Then he supported amendments giving judges authority to deny legislative delays through a four-part test. BOB ANDRES / ROBERT.ANDRES@AJC.COM

If adopted, Hailie's Amendment wouldn't stop attorneys from requesting continuances from judges because of legislative duties, just as they do for case conflicts, vacations and personal matters. Ultimately, the decision would be left to the judge, just as the law currently calls for.

Asked how the proposal differs from the law enacted last year, Jones told the AJC the measure would shift even more authority to judges, taking legislative privileges off the table and restoring the normal relationship between a judge and a lawyer seeking to put off a court appearance.

The proposed measure also serves as a volley in the ongoing budget battle between Ralston and Gov. Brian Kemp. Several of the amendment’s sponsors are key Kemp allies. Jones said he believes the governor will support it.

“Governor Kemp had the opportunity to meet with Hailie earlier today and thanked her for her bravery,” a statement from the governor’s office said. “The Kemp family believes that all victims deserve justice, and Hailie’s story is tremendously powerful.”

Hailie Massey, right, hugs former FBI agent Derek Somerville following a press conference at the Georgia Capitol on Thursday. Somerville, who conducted independent research into House Speaker David Ralston’s case delays last year, helped connect Massey’s family with the lawmakers pushing the amendment named for her. REBECCA WRIGHT / FOR THE AJC

Credit: Rebecca Wright

Credit: Rebecca Wright


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News reported in 2019 that House Speaker David Ralston used the privileges of his office to postpone court cases for clients of his private law practice. A state law dating back to 1905 allowed legislators to put off court dates if they notified a judge that their lawmaker duties required them to be elsewhere, and Ralston used the privilege repeatedly, keeping clients out of jail and civil complaints from moving forward in courts. Further reporting by the AJC revealed Ralston played a part in expanding the law in 2006 so that legislative leave could be claimed year-round, not just during legislative sessions. The General Assembly amended the law again last year based on recommendations from a Ralston-appointed advisory panel, giving judges the power to overrule legislative leave through a four-part test.

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