Ralston seeks changes to law letting lawmakers delay criminal cases

2/25/19 - Atlanta - House Speaker David Ralston took to the well during Morning Orders this morning to address accusations that he has abused his authority. Several Republican lawmakers signed onto a resolution calling for Georgia House Speaker David Ralston to resign over his use of power to delay cases of defendants accused of crimes. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Facing calls for ouster, Ralston also won’t take new criminal defendants

House Speaker David Ralston said Monday he'll seek changes to a century-old law that allows state legislators to ask judges to delay court cases, after an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News found he frequently used the law to help clients.

Under fire from critics calling for his ouster, the Republican House leader said he’ll create a bipartisan panel comprised of lawmakers, judges, attorneys and civic leaders that will investigate how to change the law dating back to 1905.

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 abusing his power.

But Ralston said he recognizes that the reports expose concerns about whether the law could be misused. He said he won’t accept new criminal cases until four pending ones are resolved.

“I choose not to be defensive, angry or paranoid. Because I believe that would be a disservice to this House and this state. I choose instead to try to grow and learn from this moment,” said Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge who has led the House since 2010.

There was no immediate details about who would be tapped to the commission, which Ralston said would be appointed this week.

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

Among them were several of the 10 lawmakers signed a resolution last week asking Ralston to resign from his post after the investigation showed Ralston asked judges to reschedule court proceedings 57 times over a two-year period.

The group was led by state Rep. David Clark, a Buford Republican who said in an interview that he couldn't stand by and watch while victims were being denied justice.

2/25/19 - Atlanta - Rep. David Clark, R - Buford, watches House Speaker David Ralston during Morning Orders this morning where Ralston addressed accusations that he has abused his authority. Clark has called for Ralston's resignation. Several Republican lawmakers signed onto a resolution calling for Georgia House Speaker David Ralston to resign over his use of power to delay cases of defendants accused of crimes. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

“I’m hoping people have courage and the spine to do what’s right,” he said, urging others to join him.

In his address from the center of the House floor, Ralston disparaged critics who he said were trying to score political points and suggested that Clark, who is considering a bid for an open 7th District U.S. House seat, took the stance to capture media attention.

"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,” said Ralston.

Still, he acknowledged, the report also forced him to take immediate action.

“I may not always like it, it may not be the easy thing to do,” he said, “but I’m reminded that perception is reality.”

A ‘dishonor’

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

He recently held a closed-door GOP caucus meeting that earned mix 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 embattled speaker and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who faced allegations of sexual assault during his confirmation process to the Supreme Court.

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

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

With rumors flying about high-profile Republicans joining the effort, Clark was the only committee chairman to sign the resolution. Of the remaining nine, most are lower-profile legislators with little to lose and reason to oppose the speaker.

Among them is state Rep. Scot Turner, who applauded Ralston for taking the step Monday to changing the law, but criticized him for “denigrating the motives” of those who signed the resolution.

“There remains a lack of recognition that his actions have caused people harm,” said Turner, R-Holly Springs. “Continuing to say he has done nothing wrong dishonors those still seeking justice.”

- Staff writer Chris Joyner contributed to this report.

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