Let me get straight to the point: Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston is skating on thin political ice. Ralston holds the second-most powerful position in our state and has for almost two decades. But those days may be coming to an end.
There is no question that Ralston is a power under the Gold Dome. Not much happens there without the Speaker’s say-so. But outside is a different matter.
Like it or not, perception is reality and the public perception is that David Ralston, a Blue Ridge attorney, is abusing the legal system, taking advantage of people who don’t have his power and influence by stalling cases far beyond what seems reasonable.
A 1905 law states that lawyer-legislators can continue or stay cases in which they are involved if they certify to the court that their presence is required elsewhere because of their legislative duties. In other words, it would be difficult to try a case during the legislative session and reasonable to postpone it until after the session ended.
But according to some crackerjack reporting by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB-TV, it seems Ralston has asked judges to reschedule 21 court cases at least 57 times in just the last two years. The news agencies found 93 days when Ralston said he was unavailable for court appearances. Out of that number, 76 days were not during the General Assembly’s legislative session.
Some of his clients are charged with child molestation, assault, terroristic threats and drunken driving.
According to the news reports, one client was indicted by a grand jury for aggravated assault four years ago. He stands accused of assaulting his girlfriend and has a past record of attacking women. That was four years ago. He is still a free man, thanks to Ralston’s delay tactics.
Another Ralston client is free six years after being indicted for raping a 14-year-old girl. One DUI defendant represented by Ralston is still awaiting trial over a decade since he was first charged. Another client accused of enticing a child for indecent purposes has had his trial delayed 14 times since 2009.
One victim of Ralston’s tactics has had enough. Amanda Mosher has filed a grievance against the speaker with the State Bar of Georgia.
In January 2005, her husband and 4-year-old daughter were killed when they were rear-ended in Gilmer County. Authorities charged Walter Layson with two counts of vehicular homicide. He pleaded not guilty and is out on bond. Layson has been represented by Ralston since 2008 and there has been no trial to date.
Mosher charges that Ralston has claimed legislative conflicts 13 times. She documents that many of those conflicts involved political dinners and fundraisers, according to the speaker’s own campaign reports. Not what I would call legislative duties.
Ralston has declined to make his calendar available to let us see for ourselves. It seems that the legislature exempts itself from the Georgia Open Records Act. What a surprise.
Ralston has remained uncontrite and unapologetic through the whole affair. He went to the well of the House to mount a spirited defense to the applause of his fawning members. Even former Govs. Roy Barnes and Nathan Deal weighed in on what a swell guy David Ralston is. But not everyone is on board.
Rep. David Clark, R-Buford, along with nine of his colleagues, all Republicans, has called for the speaker’s resignation. The Gainesville Times has urged him to resign. The public backlash seems to be moving beyond Ralston’s ability to control it.
I doubt the speaker will resign, but his voters may retire him instead, assuming he runs for re-election in 2020.
Ralston might want to recall what happened to Tom Murphy, the fierce and feared speaker who wielded absolute power during his 28 years in office. In the latter years of his reign, the margin of victory in his re-elections began to shrink. I wrote a column saying that despite his enormous influence under the Gold Dome, he had lost touch with the common folks and that his political career was “toast.”
Speaker Murphy wrote me a stinging rebuke which began with “I have never read anything you have written” and then proceeded to tan my hide, leaving me to wonder, if he never read anything I had written, why was he so mad at me? I never got around to asking him. He was defeated next election.
David Ralston isn’t toast yet, but I suspect he is beginning to feel the heat.
You can reach Dick Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org; at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, Georgia 31139 or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dickyarb.