The Supreme Court of Wisconsin killed John Doe.
Writing for the majority, Justice Michael Gableman slammed a special prosecutor’s handling of the investigation and praised the unnamed plaintiffs for pushing back against a violation of their First Amendment rights to political speech.
“It is utterly clear that the special prosecutor has employed theories of law that do not exist in order to investigate citizens who were wholly innocent of any wrongdoing,” Gableman wrote in the majority opinion. “To be clear, this conclusion ends the John Doe investigation because the special prosecutor’s legal theory is unsupported in either reason or law.”
The Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office secretly launched the John Doe into conservative groups and donors who backed Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign during the recall election of 2012. Investigators sought to prove those groups, most notably the Wisconsin Club for Growth, coordinated with Walker’s campaign in violation of state campaign finance law.
Law enforcement officials raided the homes and offices of the DA’s targets and warned them they could be jailed if they spoke out.
Todd Graves, an attorney who represented some of the targets of the John Doe investigation, praised Gableman’s ruling. He said it confirms what other courts have already found: Special prosecutor Francis Schmitz and Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm acted as if key elements of the Bill of Right’s didn’t exist.
“They counted on a veil of secrecy to assault the fundamental liberties of our clients and commit taxpayer funds for an outrageous misuse of their offices and the law,” said Graves. “They used their unlawful investigation to try to threaten and embarrass groups they do not like, specifically because of the groups’ constitutionally protected efforts on libertarian and conservative issues.”
In dissenting, Justice Shirley Abrahamson said the conclusion reached by the majority disregards both the letter and the spirit of Wisconsin’s campaign finance law.
“The majority opinion adopts an unprecedented and faulty interpretation of Wisconsin’s campaign finance law and of the First Amendment,” she wrote. “In doing so, the majority opinion delivers a significant blow to Wisconsin’s campaign finance law.”
Thursday’s ruling dealt with three separate legal issues, which the court earlier this year combined into a single case. At the center of the three cases, along with prosecutors’ tactics, was the legal interpretation of Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws.
The ruling continues a trend in state court decisions since the 1970s to take a narrower view of the state’s right to regulate campaign finance, said Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty.
Allowing the investigation to continue, Esenberg said, would have opened the doors to politicized attacks on individuals and groups on either side of a hot-button issue.
“I can’t imagine anything that would serve to have a more substantial chilling effect on First Amendment liberties,” he said. “That’s not the way we should conduct politics in this state.”
Esenberg encouraged state lawmakers to review and rewrite the campaign finance laws, which have been subject to decades of interpretation by the courts and “are really a mess now.”
Some state lawmakers are already working on reforms spurred by the John Doe investigation.
State Sen. Tom Tiffany, R‐Hazelhurst, and state Rep. Dave Craig, R-Vernon, have introduced bills that would place stricter rules on how John Doe investigations are carried out — limiting such investigations to six months and preventing gag orders on subjects of those investigations. Their bill would also require that costs of John Doe investigations be made public.
The lawmakers praised Thursday’s ruling and called for action from the state Legislature.
“While justice may have been served at long last on those unnamed petitioners in today’s ruling, unfortunately there are several others who do not have the means and the opportunity to pursue a rigorous defense when battling similar circumstances,” they said in a joint statement.
Gableman, in the ruling Thursday, praised the subjects of the John Doe investigation for fighting back through the legal system.
“These brave individuals played a crucial role in presenting this court with an opportunity to re-endorse its commitment to upholding the fundamental right of each and every citizen to engage in lawful political activity and to do so free from the fear of the tyrannical retribution of arbitrary or capricious governmental prosecution,” he wrote.
Lower courts already determined no laws were broken, even if Walker’s campaign had coordinated with outside groups during the campaign. In the majority opinion, Gableman said the Supreme Court’s ruling left no room for doubt the John Doe investigation was over.
“This closes a divisive chapter in Wisconsin history, and the assertive recognition of First Amendment rights by the Wisconsin Supreme Court protects free speech for all Wisconsinites,” said Brad Schimel, Wisconsin’s attorney general, in a statement.
The case cannot be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on its merits because the federal court has no jurisdiction over state court rulings on state laws, Esenberg said.
But another aspect of the case could be the subject of an appeal. Liberal groups have called for the conservative members of Wisconsin’s Supreme Court — including all four justices who made up the majority in Thursday’s decision — to recuse themselves because they received campaign contributions from the Club for Growth and other conservative organizations.
“This ruling raises grave concerns about the fairness and impartiality of the court in this case,” said Matt Menendez, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “Based on publicly available information, it is extraordinary that the Wisconsin Supreme Court refused to explain how several of the justices could, ethically and constitutionally, even rule on this case.”
Esenberg said the John Doe prosecutors could appeal that issue to the U.S. Supreme Court, but it’s unlikely to get involved. In the past, federal courts have acknowledged that campaign contributions are a fundamental part of the process of electing judges.
From a political perspective, Thursday’s ruling is yet another win for Walker against the same coalition that tried to recall him from office in 2012 and then failed to defeat his re-election bid in 2014.
The timing couldn’t be better for Walker. The Supreme Court ruling coincides with the launch of his presidential campaign earlier this week.
“Today’s ruling confirmed no laws were broken, a ruling that was previously stated by both a state and federal judge,” said AshLee Strong, Walker’s campaign spokeswoman. “It is time to move past this unwarranted investigation that has cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Series NavigationWisconsin Supreme Court shuts down John Doe investigation
- Wisconsin Supreme Court shuts down John Doe investigation; affirms First Amendment
- Wisconsin Supreme Court shuts down John Doe investigation
- The John Doe investigation might finally be over; Supreme Court to rule Thursday
- Left’s loud transparency defenders silent on secret John Doe
- Vos: Time to ‘double down’ on GAB reform in wake of reported IRS links
- Wall Street Journal: GAB’s Kennedy had a friend in IRS’ Lois Lerner
- National Review: Political John Doe victimized 16-year-old boy
- Cindy Archer: Chisholm’s John Doe was ‘campaign of intimidation’
- Former Walker aide to file civil rights lawsuit against John Doe prosecutor
- Kelly Rindfleisch: ‘I fear I will never get justice’
- ‘Did they get me?’: Docs reveal long-time John Doe spying operation
- Justice Gableman: Warrants in Rindfleisch case amount to ‘fishing expedition’
- Justice asks state Supreme Court to reconsider Rindfleisch Fourth Amendment appeal
- What happened to Kelly Rindfleisch could happen to you
- Kelly Rindfleisch takes her Fourth Amendment fight to the U.S. Supreme Court
- GAB reform stalled, new docs show GAB working closely with John Doe prosecutors
- John Doe reform bill stuck in legislative waiting game
- Was John Chisholm John Doe distracted?
- U.S. Supreme Court denies review of John Doe-related case
- Warrants command John Doe targets to remain silent
- Political prisoner Kelly Rindfleisch on home confinement, working for O’Keefe
- Will discovery reveal more bombshell information about ‘rogue’ GAB?
- Wisconsin as a New Yorker cartoon of itself
- U.S. Supreme Court could announce decision on John Doe case later this month
- Five years later: America just learning ‘tyrannical’ secrets of Wisconsin’s John Doe
- John Chisholm’s 50 shades of ‘raid’
- Do Chisholm’s public comments on John Doe cross ethical line?
- Experts: Chances rise that U.S. Supreme Court will take John Doe case
- U.S. Supreme Court to consider hearing John Doe-related case
- Who was the reporter outside Cindy Archer’s house?
- John Doe reform bill stalls in Legislature
- Lawmaker: Chief justice’s civil rights complaint is ‘pathetic’
- New documents expose GAB’s ‘parallel’ probe expenditures
- Did chief justice show her hand in dissenting John Doe opinion?
- U.S. Supreme Court could soon decide whether to take John Doe Case
- Kelly Rindfleisch, Chisholm’s political prize, to begin sentence on Thursday
- GAB, friend of the John Doe, just wants to be a ‘friend of the court’
- Kelly Rindfleisch hopes to avoid becoming first John Doe political prisoner
- Secretive John Doe special prosecutor who fancies a good leak screams secrecy breach
- Wisconsin Supreme Court rejects Rindfleisch Fourth Amendment appeal
- On Sunshine Week, GAB still operating in the dark
- John Doe target says they are the victim of identity theft
- Reform bill would open up the John Doe books to taxpayers
- John Doe reform bill aims to break silence of abusive investigations
- Milwaukee DA to be ‘special guest’ at fundraiser for Supreme Court justice
- $775,000 and rising — Wisconsin taxpayers’ bill to defend John Doe prosecutors
- Prosecutor misstatements continue to shape John Doe narrative, Walker’s future
- Is John Doe special prosecutor still working with partisan DA, GAB?
- Conservative groups ask U.S. Supreme Court to defend rights of John Doe targets
- Does chief justice have conflict of interest in John Doe case?
- First Amendment expert: Wisconsin ought to be ’embarrassed’ by John Doe
- Following judge’s order killing John Doe, what’s next?
- Federal judge’s judgment takes John Doe probe off life support
- How Wisconsin media support DA’s war on conservatives
- Conservatives: GAB’s meeting minutes show gap in board’s John Doe oversight
- O’Keefe takes his case against John Doe to U.S. Supreme Court
- GAB has a sudden change of heart on campaign finance reform
- Public defender asks Supreme Court to take up John Doe-related Fourth Amendment case
- GAB plays victim card in ‘complicated’ John Doe, campaign finance farce
- Doe possessed: ‘They have information about every aspect of our lives’
- One year ago, judge’s ruling shakes up John Doe probe
- State lawmakers look to investigate the GAB and its investigators
- O’Keefe officially asks judge to open probe into John ‘Doe’ Chisholm
- GAB offers contradictory defense of its John Doe activities
- Isn’t it ironic: Mainstream silence follows reports of secret GAB Gmail in John Doe
- Attorney: GAB’s John Doe justifications don’t hold up to law
- ‘Outside the … law’: Lawmakers call for investigation of GAB
- Rogue agency defied judges to carry out partisan probe of Wisconsin conservatives
- GAB won’t say whether it has reauthorized its role in John Doe probe
- ‘R word’ surfaces in wake of state Supreme Court taking up John Doe challenges
- Wisconsin Supreme Court to take up John Doe complaints
- Audit: GAB has failed to follow the law
- Rindfleisch appeals to Supreme Court in John Doe Fourth Amendment abuse case
- Wisconsin’s Van Hollen says goodbye to AG post, John Doe
- Did the GAB doctor documents to cover their tracks in John Doe?
- Conservatives to court: Open up records on GAB’s role in John Doe
- John Doe froze conservative speech, targets say
- Kelly Rindfleisch will fight on in Fourth Amendment case
- John Doe lawsuit could be headed to U.S. Supreme Court
- GAB, Milwaukee County DA bail on key provision behind war on conservatives
- Vos: There will be reforms to John Doe, GAB
- Voters say ‘yes’ to Walker, ‘no’ to John Doe, law expert says
- Appeals court denies request to rehear John Doe civil rights case
- Report: No district attorney will investigate District Attorney John Chisholm
- Federalism v. individual rights: A conversation with Eric O’Keefe
- No surprise: Bice buries the lead, Walker follows the law
- Wisconsin Supreme Court takes another pass on John Doe case
- Federal judge stops John Doe prosecutors from bothering conservative group
- Armed and growing: Milwaukee County DA beefs up his ‘police force’
- Conservatives to appeals court: ‘You don’t know Doe’
- Conservative group asks court to stop John Doe ‘constitutional injury’
- Rindfleisch: ‘Rape’ not too strong a word for how violated John Doe targets feel
- The day John Doe rushed through the door
- Target of secret John Doe probe is fighting back and speaking out
- Who’s paying the bill? Report casts questions on GAB and John Doe payments
- Conservative O’Keefe seeks investigation into John Chisholm and his John Doe
- A whistleblower’s story: Taking on a ‘hyper-partisan’ district attorney
- Appeals court reverses John Doe injunction, but Wisconsin’s secret war far from over
- Source: Wisconsin Supreme Court doesn’t want political heat of John Doe case
- Rindfleisch attorney: Appeals court can protect the Fourth Amendment in Digital Age
- Kelly Rindfleisch: Where are the tears for the kids the Milwaukee school system failed?
- GAB director says agency just following the law in John Doe probe
- Is John Doe story colored with a bit of ‘Macbeth?’
- Wisconsin prosecutors appeal for protection from blowback in partisan probe
- Another blow for Wisconsin’s restrictive campaign finance law
- $25,000 and counting: WI taxpayers’ bill so far to defend GAB and its ‘monster’
- Was John Doe judge a rubber stamp?
- First Amendment big guns back targets of John Doe probe
- Conservatives say ‘incorrect disclosure’ of John Doe docs no ‘tiny error’
- Conservatives appeal to common sense in John Doe appeals case
- Wisconsin prosecutors aim to shut down conservatives
- Walker ‘smoking gun’ story has tiny glaring flaw
- John Doe prosecutors take desperate, unethical slap
- ‘Retaliation’: Docs show state prosecutors launched mini-NSA probe of WI conservatives
- Overheated media erroneously bring back Walker ‘criminal scheme’ theme
- Taxpayers on the hook up to $25,000 for GAB’s legal maneuvers
- Appeals court orders release of some John Doe documents
- Conservatives in John Doe battle know disclosure comes with a heavy price
- Kelly Rindfleisch appeal to test validity of John Doe digital searches
- Senator: Looks like accountability board is hiding something
- John Doe document blitz must have broken mainstream media’s heart
- In John Doe Land, the left doesn’t illegally coordinate
- Oral arguments set in John Doe prosecutors’ appeal
- Judge denies conservatives’ request to add GAB to civil rights lawsuit
- John Doe prosecutors engaged in war of words — lots and lots of words
- Will John Doe prosecutors launch lengthy probe against Trek Bicycle?
- GAB now playing secrets in state John Doe lawsuit
- Senator asks attorney general to compel GAB to open up its books
- AG opinion means accountability board’s John Doe secrets are safe — for now
- Is John Doe probe a case of a mini NSA in Wisconsin?
- John Doe prosecutors engaged in premature justification, conservatives say
- Mainstream media forced to walk back Walker ‘criminal scheme’ narrative
- Kelly Rindfleisch tells conservatives, ‘Don’t back down’
- Expert: John Doe raids raise ‘troubling’ Fourth Amendment questions
- Wall Street Journal points out ‘disgrace’ of mainstream John Doe reporting
- Right on cue: Document dump fuels anti-Walker donation drive
- Federal judge blasts John Doe prosecutors – again – as he denies records release
- Humiliated in court, WI Dems take their anti-conservative John Doe probe to the media
- What about those prosecutors? Questions surround other John Doe DAs
- John Doe prosecutors jump back into the dark?
- Will taxpayers have to pay for frivolity of John Doe prosecutors?
- John Doe I judge says he’s not responsible for John Doe II
- O’Keefe keeps collecting big wins in John Doe lawsuit
- Appeals court upholds judge’s order shutting down John Doe probe
- ‘Never-ending’ John Doe never ended, WSJ reports
- John Doe special prosecutor obeys judge’s order
- ‘Are these kind of armed pre-dawn raids standard operating procedure?’
- John Doe special prosecutor’s bill still shrouded in secrecy
- Federal judge says his order halting John Doe probe should be clear to prosecutor
- John Doe targets sue Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board
- Attorney to judge: Don’t let John Doe prosecutor ‘moot’ injunction
- Sources: Attorney General passes on defending GAB in John Doe cases
- Walker’s John Doe response raises more questions than answers
- Contempt questions surround reported John Doe deal talks
- Would Walker settlement with John Doe prosecutors be a deal with the devil?
- Sources: No urgency in WI Supreme Court on John Doe
- For the Walker-hating left, John Doe is ‘Mission Accomplished’
- State Farm still doesn’t want to cover John Doe prosecutor’s legal bills
- GAB still reviewing court ruling declaring WI campaign finance law unconstitutional
- John Doe prosecutors voice phony outrage, legal source says
- Expert: It’s as if GAB decided ‘Citizens United didn’t exist’
- John Doe prosecutors suddenly support opening sealed court records
- Appeals Court declares portions of Wisconsin campaign finance law unconstitutional
- Still their little secret? Questions remain on John Doe gag order
- Secret’s out: The world is beginning to learn more about WI’s John Doe
- Lawyers, lawyers everywhere and other dispatches from John Doe Land
- Lawmakers call for review of GAB’s secret John Doe activities, funds
- Federal judge orders John Doe probe shut down again
- Federal judge’s ruling could open up sealed John Doe records
- Appeals court stalls judge’s order halting John Doe probe
- What’s next for now-defunct John Doe probe?
- This is what the Fourth Amendment looks like?
- John Doe is dead: Judge stops WI prosecutors’ probe into conservatives
- Are John Doe prosecutors sweating out federal judge’s decision?
- Media coalition asks judge to open sealed John Doe documents
- Federal judge denies John Doe prosecutors’ motion to stall civil rights case
- John Doe prosecutors sound defensive in latest court filings
- John Doe target says prosecutors latest move another delay tactic
- John Doe, as it is being used, must go, WI senator says
- Target: John Doe prosecutors making up campaign law as they go along
- Civil rights expert: John Doe law is ‘un-American,’ like something from ‘Nazi Germany’
- Judge denies John Doe prosecutors’ move to dismiss civil rights suit
- Nobody will say what John Doe’s shadow man did, but taxpayers are paying his legal bill
- SCOTUS ruling on campaign finance shows abuse of John Doe, targets say
- ‘Easy target’: Kelly Rindfleisch breaks silence about John Doe probe
- Poll suggests Dems’ big ‘secret’ weapon against Walker is backfiring
- Absolute immunity makes it tough to prosecute the prosecutors of John Doe
- Recusal in John Doe case raises questions of fairness, purpose
- D’oh! John Doe prosecutors claim secrecy protection – after filing secret documents
- Secret agent Dean Nickel’s defense: ‘Dean Nickel is not responsible’
- John Doe prosecutors wanted higher-priced lawyers, source says
- Shadowy John Doe investigator invokes federalism in civil rights lawsuit
- Conservatives counterpunch John Doe prosecutors’ move to stall injunction
- John Doe prosecutor pushed for brain-damaged man’s conviction in ATF debacle
- John Doe special prosecutor appeals judge’s ruling quashing subpoenas
- John Doe judge: ‘Results of the John Doe speak for themselves’
- Liberal group looking to take Wisconsin’s John Doe national
- Disparate treatment: Civil rights lawsuit claims conservative speech trampled
- Target files civil rights lawsuit against Wisconsin’s John Doe prosecutors
- Lawmaker: Wisconsin’s John Doe like Christie’s ‘Bridgegate’
- John Doe target O’Keefe taking on IRS, too
- Conservative to Democrat prosecutors: Shut down secret political probe or face civil rights lawsuit
- Lawsuits looming in Wisconsin’s crumbling John Doe probe?
- Vos: Wait until John Doe in ‘rearview mirror’ before revisiting law
- WSJ: John Doe judge deals body blow to secret probe targeting conservatives
- Biggest secret in John Doe may be just how judges and special prosecutors are selected
- Republicans speak out about silent John Doe targeting conservatives
- WI Republican attorney general to represent judges in Democrat-led John Doe probe
- Wisconsin Dems suddenly support political investigations
- Center for Media and Democracy: Liberals are morally superior
- ‘Dangerous’ game: Former FEC official blasts Democrats’ secret investigation of conservative groups
- Conservative targets bring in big guns to Democrat-led John Doe fight
- Will Wisconsin’s own ‘Miserable’ inspector jail conservative activist for speaking out about Dem probe?
- Vendetta justice? Criticism growing about John Doe prosecutor Bruce Landgraf
- Sources: New judge named in Democrat-led secret probe
- Clarke: John Doe into conservatives ‘unbridled,’ ‘dangerous’ and ‘tainted’
- Sheriff Clarke: John Doe case shows Milwaukee DA is ‘weaponized for political purposes’
- Democrats tap anti-terror expert to head secret probe of Wisconsin conservatives
- Democrats’ ‘intelligence-gathering’ spreads in Wisconsin
- EXCLUSIVE: Judge in Democrat-led John Doe probe recuses herself
- Scary! Phantom prosecutor in Dems’ war on conservatives disappears inside courthouse
- Sources: Secret probe targeting conservatives is abuse of prosecutorial powers
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