Georgia House speaker accused of using office to delay court for clients

An influential Georgia politician is accused of using the power of his office to delay court cases for criminal defendants he has represented as an attorney.

House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican, asked judges to delay court cases 57 times over a two-year period, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB-TV concluded in a joint investigation.

Some of the charges against Ralston’s clients included child molestation, child cruelty and assault, The newspaper reported. The proceedings for one client charged with driving under the influence have been postponed for over a decade, while another person, accused of enticing a child for indecent purposes, has avoided trial since 2009.

According to Georgia law, judges must reschedule cases that interfere with the legislative responsibilities of attorneys who are also politicians.

On Wednesday, Ralston released a written statement claiming that his actions were entirely legal.

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“Legislative leave is a long-established provision of Georgia law which recognizes the unique needs of a citizen-legislature and protects the independence of the legislative branch of state government,” the statement said. “Like other members of the General Assembly, I utilize this provision outside of the legislative session, when necessary, to attend to my legislative duties as both a state representative and speaker of the House.”

Ralston repeatedly sent letters to the court to delay his cases, the report found. It determined that clients' chances of avoiding stricter punishments have increased -- and profited Ralston’s law firm -- as the delays have gone on.

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“Please be advised that I am hereby requesting a continuance of these three cases from the criminal calendar call,” Ralston wrote in one of the letters. “I hereby certify to the court that my legislative duties and obligations will require that I be elsewhere on that date.”

As House speaker, Ralston is able to claim conflicts throughout the year. In 21 cases checked by The Journal-Constitution he filed 57 requests for continuances. Of the days Ralston said he was unavailable, more than 75 percent fell outside legislative sessions.

Fox News' Michael Sinkewicz and The Associated Press contributed to this report.