The front page story of today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution accuses Georgia House Speaker David Ralston of using his position as speaker of the House to gain an advantage over the State in his criminal defense practice. An accompanying broadcast report cites “obscure law,” O.C.G.A. Section 17–8–2, as the evil tool that Speaker Ralston is using to hurt the rights of victims.

The statute give members of the General Assembly the right to a continuance or stay of any pending court case during “any regular or extraordinary session of the General Assembly and during the first three weeks following any recess or adjournment.” Another provision of that statute provides that “a continuance or stay shall also be granted for such other times as the member of the General Assembly or staff member certifies to the court that his or her presence elsewhere is required by his or her duties with the General Assembly.”

Johnny Edwards, the reporter who wrote the piece, managed to track down one of the clients, who admitted that he hired Ralston with continuances in mind, saying “[t]hat’s why I gave him 20,000 bucks.” A bit of commentary is in order here. I make no conclusion on whether Speaker Ralston is using his position as legislator to gain a tactical advantage over the State. Though the more likely scenario is that he’s just having trouble managing a law practice and being speaker of the house.

  • There was a time when most of the legislature was made up of attorneys. Legislative service was once something that young lawyers did for their community. Running for office was something akin to being in Rotary. It helped a young lawyer become known in the community. The legislature would do well to have more lawyers among its ranks. Lawyers are ideally suited to craft laws and are equipped to foresee unintended consequences of proposed laws. And there are far too few lawyers in the current legislature. The “obscure statute” allows lawyers to juggle a law practice and legislative service. And if there were no such statute, then it is likely that there would be even fewer lawyers in the legislature.
  • The article presumes that delays in cases hurt victims and help defendants. While that may well be the case some of the time, there is often nothing more terrible for the client and counsel than keeping a criminal file open for a long time. There is a reason why there is a constitutional right to a speedy trial. Perpetual jeopardy is very often agony. Also, critical defense witnesses can forget about facts and become unavailable over time. The article mentions nothing about the toll that time can take on a defense case. Defendants have a right to put up a case, too.
  • Speaker Ralston practices in a rural North Georgia area. It may well be that cases generally take quite a while to reach a resolution in a place like that where grand jury and trial terms are infrequent. The article does not compare how long it takes Ralston’s cases to resolve versus criminal cases overall. There was a missed opportunity in the research. I’d be interested to hear from the clerk of court or circuit public defender how long it takes, on average, for criminal cases to move from arrest to completion for defendants who are out on bond (I’ll assume that Ralston’s clients are on bond). Bonded clients are often a lower priority for trial than those in custody.
  • The article is very anecdotal. And there’s a bit of confirmation bias at play. For instance, where one of the victims in a case has trouble keeping her story straight, Edwards presumes that she has a poor memory as a result of the passage of time. However, it might actually be possible that Ralston’s client isn’t guilty and that the witness’s story isn’t true. One might actually be allowed to presume Ralston’s client to be innocent.

Again, I have no idea if Ralston is playing the rules to gain an advantage over the State. I’d like to see more facts. But, if we assume that he is, the solution is either for the Court to move his cases faster, or for the voters in his district to deliver a verdict through the ballot box. The problem does not lie with a sensible statute that allows lawyers to serve in the legislature.