This story was updated Feb. 22, 2019, at 6:40 p.m. with more information.
Georgia state Rep. Colton Moore, R-Trenton, took an aggressive step against Republican leadership Friday, when he signed on to a resolution calling for the ouster of Speaker of the House David Ralston.
Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, has been the head of the chamber since 2010 but is embroiled in a scandal over his work as a private defense attorney. According to an investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News, Ralston has continually used his work as a lawmaker to push back trial dates, sometimes in cases involving allegations of violent crimes.
"It is clear your public service and private business cannot function at the appropriate and prompt pace called for in your agreement with the State Bar of Georgia and their Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct," Moore, R-Trenton, wrote in a letter to Ralston on Friday. "District 1 and many citizens across our great State believe you should no longer serve as the leader of Georgia's largest governing body."
A Georgia law allows state legislators to delay court cases if a scheduled hearing or trial conflicts with their job requirements as elected officials. According to the AJC, Ralston used that law to delay cases 57 times over the course of two years.
The resolution that Moore signed calls for Ralston to resign. In his letter, he also asks Ralston to consider withdrawing as attorney in the controversial court cases.
State Rep. David Clark, R-Buford, led the call for Ralston to resign. He told the AJC that he was particularly troubled by the story of a 14-year-old girl who accused a traveling evangelist of raping and molesting her. Ralston represented the pastor and delayed the case in Towns County Superior Court at least eight times.
"These victims are being hurt by our speaker, who has abused his power," Clark said.
Since the story broke, Ralston defended his work as an attorney. He said he was using a law that has been in place for decades.
Thus far, no prominent Republicans in Georgia have called for Ralston to be punished in the wake of the story. While Clark is the chairman of the House Interstate Cooperation Committee, none of the other nine lawmakers who signed his resolution are in leadership positions.
Moore is a freshman lawmaker who beat incumbent John Deffenbaugh in a Republican primary in May. This is the second time he has taken a high-profile stance against leadership this session. Earlier this month, he was one of two representatives to vote against naming the state's new Judicial Complex after former Gov. Nathan Deal.
While Deal has received praise for trying to lower the state's prison population, including signing a bill that reduced the state's mandatory minimums for some drug offenders, Moore argued that Deal did not go far enough. Moore has also co-sponsored a bill that would allow residents to outwardly carry guns without a license, even though Ralston urged his caucus to avoid those kind of contentious social issues this year.
McCracken Poston, a Ringgold attorney who served as a state representative from 1988-96, said he previously used the same law that Ralston relies on. He said the law generally exists because the role of a state representative or senator is supposed to be a part-time job, with annual salaries of $17,000.
Poston said the law usually only applied to him during the 40-day legislative session. Ralston, on the other hand, has relied on the law even after the elected officials go home.
"On its face, it's a good provision," he said. "It just seems like it might have been over-applied in some instances."
Tom Weldon, another Ringgold attorney and former state representative, said the burden in instances like this is on the judges. If a defense attorney like Ralston wants to push for delays in his clients' cases, judges have to decide whether the request is legitimate.
"As long as his clients are happy with it, I don't think there's a violation on anything," Weldon said. "There's nothing unethical about it, as long as what he's doing is in accordance with the rules. I suspect he has. He's a good lawyer."
State Reps. Kasey Carpenter and Dewayne Hill both said they would not sign off on a resolution like Moore did. Hill, R-Ringgold, said he has not seen any evidence that Ralston abused the law that is in place. He argued that Ralston has done a good job as speaker, and he doesn't want to take action against Ralston unless convincing evidence surfaces.
"I hate that this is all coming about," Hill said. "This takes away from us doing and concentrating on the people's needs."
Carpenter, R-Dalton, said some representatives are working on legislation that would amend the law that Ralston used. He's not sure exactly what that change will look like or who will sponsor the bill. But he thinks some tweaks should be made to avoid court delays that last several years.
"A lot of the public's concerns can be addressed through legislation," Carpenter said. "As it stands now, he operated within the confines of the law. If you don't like the law, let's change the law."
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.