In a follow up story to the one published in last’s weeks AJC, Chris Joyner and Johnny Edwards have doubled down on some of the flaws from the original story. The writers continue to blame defense counsel Speaker Ralston solely for delays in his criminal cases. They take the additional step of taking him to task for being a criminal defense attorney — something merely suggested in the original article. The writers quote the leader of Georgia’s Tea Party to make that attack. And, rather than investigating the case files in the North Georgia courts where the matters are pending, the reporters focus on Ralston’s legislative colleagues and discuss whether those colleagues continue to support him or are backing away from him. What started as a criminal justice story for the AJC, is now clearly a political story (maybe this has been a political story all along). Unfortunately, the flaws serve to further undermine a better public understanding of how the system works and the role of defense counsel in an adversarial system in which the prosecutor brings the case and the judge sets the schedule.

An interesting follow-up to the story would have been to explore the cases in a more in-depth way to see if the state opposed requests for continuance. Judges and prosecutors serve a pivotal role in the scheduling and pace of a case from indictment to conclusion. And I cannot stress enough that we have an adversarial system. Frequently, the state and defense counsel argue motions to continue matters. And even when the defense and the prosecution agree to continue cases, the judge may ultimately decide whether a case proceeds to trial in a way that makes neither side happy. Every trial lawyer has a set of war strories on this topic.  Additionally, there are tools available where the parties, for whatever reason, have difficulty getting a case resolved.

  • Special Setting. Judges can specially set cases. When a case is specially set, the parties are directed to show up on a particular date and time to try a matter. In the normal course of events, a large set of cases will be called in on a Monday morning. And the Court decides, from among the group of cases, which ones will go to trial that week. Of the maybe hundred or so cases who appear, one or two will be tried that week. By contrast, when a case is specially set, a particular case is called in for trial. When a judge specially sets a case, the parties know when their case will be tried. And, because the parties have generally agreed to a special setting, they are hard pressed to bring a continuance. Years ago, when I worked as an associate for a very busy criminal defense attorney, the judges in a particular jurisdiction were frustrated by all of my boss’s scheduling conflicts. To help everybody out, I tried two misdemeanor cases before a jury one week, picked a jury on a third, and resolved a fourth. If someone as busy as the speaker of the house is defense counsel, it seems like his cases would be perfect for special setting. I wonder if the State or the Court ever tried something like that in Ralston’s cases. Seems like the story should have explored this question. Instead, the writers decided to go to Ralston’s legislative colleagues to figure out if they want to condemn him, support him or enforce what the AJC calls a “code of silence.”
  • Scheduling Orders. Another tool to move cases is a scheduling order. When a judge imposes a scheduling order, the parties come together early in a case to decide when motions will be due, when motions will be heard, and when trial will commence. When the scheduling order is discussed, the parties bring their calendars and work out proposed dates for various milestones in the case. Scheduling orders are routine in Federal Court. And they work as a sort of contract for the the case’s resolution. In some Georgia jurisdictions, the use of scheduling orders is regulated by local rules and customs. The scheduling order can be a powerful tool for the Court where a case proves tricky to schedule and resolve. And if someone with a schedule such at that of Speaker of the House is defense counsel, it would seem that scheduling order would be just the thing. Was there ever a scheduling order in Ralston’s case? We have no idea, because the journalists chose not to explore this question.

Trial law is not governed like a baseball game. In a baseball game, an umpire will call every pitch a ball or a strike. In law, either the pitcher or the batter has to request a ruling. And if defense counsel requests a continuance, the prosecution has every right to oppose the request. Further, if a case is taking too long to resolve, it is up to the party who most wants it resolved to speak up. Again, it’s an adversarial system. And the defense attorney’s job is to win his client’s case. Defense counsel does not represent the victim. So, if defense counsel’s motions for continuance are always granted by the judge and never opposed by the State, who is to blame — the team who brought the charges, the team defending the charges, or the umpire who controls how the game is played?

But why go in depth on the criminal justice angle when you’re writing a political piece? The AJC unveils in the follow-up article what was merely implied in the first one. Ralston’s crime is that he defends the accused at all; but he’s guilty of an ever bigger one, which may be why all of this started. The article quotes Debbie Dooley, the President of the Atlanta Tea Party: “They [the Republican leadership] rubber stamp him protecting accused child molesters and rapists and those that like to beat up women. … is that really what Republicans in the Georgia House really want to stand for?” In other words, do you want someone who defends the accused to be a political leader?

With the quote from Ms. Dooley, we learn what Ralston’s real offense is. It’s that he’s the wrong kind of attorney. Or perhaps, from the decision to interview political figures in Atlanta instead of local folks in the jurisdictions where the cases are pending, maybe the real crime is that Ralston is the wrong kind of Republican.