Legislative leave remains an issue

March 17, 2019

While none of Floyd County’s delegates in the Georgia House have called for Speaker David Ralston’s resignation, complaints that he’s abused his legislative leave authority are still resonating here.

State law allows legislators to defer court appearances in order to meet their General Assembly obligations. But the Republican criminal defense attorney from Blue Ridge received 57 extensions for 21 cases in just the past two years, according to an investigation by the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Channel 2 Action News.

The validity of that privilege was one of the issues Floyd County Superior Court Judge Jack Niedrach was asked to weigh in on Thursday during a Rome Rotary meeting.

Niedrach said he can understand the need to accommodate attorneys during the annual 40-day session, but the law covers any legislative business throughout the year.

“It would be helpful if it was just limited to the session. ... Right now, if they have something to do my hands are tied. I can’t make them come to court,” he said.

A resolution demanding Ralston’s resignation — sponsored by members of his party — states that more than 80 percent of his extensions were outside of the legislative session and that it’s been going on for too long. “These extensions have prevented access to justice for crime victims for 5 to 10 years for cases involving violent felonies, sexual crimes, DUI and domestic abuse,” House Resolution 328 reads.

It was assigned to the House Rules Committee on Feb. 26 but a hearing has not been scheduled. Ralston, who denies he misused his position to delay trials for his clients, appointed a committee to review the legislative leave law on March 1.

However, at least nine Republican county conventions last weekend approved resolutions calling for his ouster, including in neighboring Bartow. The Floyd County GOP was not among them.

Congressional district conventions are scheduled for April 13 and the state GOP convention is May 16 to 18 in Savannah.

Wait and see

Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, said HR 328 was sponsored by “a small number of House members” and she was not asked to sign on. She noted that she once was relieved of jury duty during a legislative session, although she returned the week after it ended.

“I’ve worked very well with Speaker Ralston over the years,” Dempsey said. “I can’t imagine the challenge to serve in a single-member law practice and do the work he does all over the state. And I respect that. I serve with others who work full time, and I see it is a challenge.”

She and the other members of Floyd County’s delegation, Rep. Eddie Lumsden, R-Armuchee, and Rep. Mitchell Scoggins, R-Cartersville, said they’ll wait to see the recommendations from the panel Ralston appointed. There are 11 days left in the 2019 session.

“I’m willing to let the process work itself out,” Lumsden said. “Has he broken the law? I don’t think that is the case. I do know he enjoys broad support from the members of the House.”

Scoggins, a retired Bartow County probate court judge, just took office this year. He said his dealings with Ralston have been good and, as far as he knows, the Speaker has done nothing wrong.

“I’ve never had a problem with that as a judge,” he said about legislative leave. “There’s an old saying, ‘There’s a ditch on both sides of the road.’ ... It could be that when he’s ready to go to court the (district attorney) is not ready or the judge’s calendar is full.”

The Advisory Group on Legislative Leave is directed to review the laws in Georgia and other states to determine if the state law should be modified. The group, which hasn’t met yet, is expected to have recommendations for the 2020 session.

“I am confident this bipartisan group of legislators, lawyers, judges and others will offer an informed opinion on how we should proceed,” Ralston said in a statement.

The 12-member panel is chaired by two former state representatives who are attorneys: Edward Lindsey, a Republican from Atlanta, and Ronnie Mabra, a Democrat from Fayetteville.

There also are three other former representatives who are attorneys, along with House Majority Leader Jon Burns, R-Newington, and House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, D-Luthersville, who also are attorneys.

The Chatham County DA, the Cobb County victim witness program director, a Columbus attorney, Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Brian Rickman and Georgia Supreme Court Justice John Ellington round out the list.