Many conservatives are cheering a federal judge’s decision that could end a secret investigation into illegal campaign coordination during Wisconsin’s recall elections, while good government advocates are warning that the ruling could have widespread implications for elections in the future.
Federal Judge Rudolph Randa ruled on Tuesday that a John Doe investigation into whether conservative groups coordinated with Republican candidates in the 2011 and 2012 recall election violated the First Amendment rights of those organizations. The ruling also indicates that the state is unable to regulate so-called issue advocacy ads, saying that it would put an unconstitutional restriction on free speech.
Wisconsin Club for Growth director Eric O’Keefe, who is among those targeted by the investigation, praised the ruling and says he looks “forward to reengaging in Wisconsin and speaking out on issues I believe in.” Attorney David Rivkin, who represents O’Keefe and WCG, called the decision a “victory for free speech,” and the judge recognized the investigation was about “pure political payback.”
The federal prosecutor handling the case has already filed an appeal, and is seeking a stay of Judge Rand’s order to return or destroy all evidence gathered during the investigation.
The findings are drawing concerns from government watchdog groups, who say it could lead to a slippery slope that will make it harder for many candidates to compete in Wisconsin elections. Wisconsin Democracy Campaign executive director Mike McCabe says that, if the decision is allowed to stand, it will lead “to even more dark money and even more concentration of political power in very few hands, than what we have today.”
McCabe also disagrees with Judge Rudolph Randa’s assertion that conservative groups are not able to influence conservative candidates on issues where both already largely agree. He calls it a “preposterous argument” that will only allow those who agree with the wealthiest donors to successfully run for political office.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) was among many Republicans who called the ruling “a vindication of what we have been saying all along, and that is that this has been unfortunately much more about a political agenda, as opposed to fact finding and looking for some sort of smoking gun.”
Tuesday’s ruling is expected to give conservatives a stronger defense against the John Doe investigation in the political realm. Democrats had already been citing the investigation ahead of the upcoming November elections, but Marquette Law School political scientist Charles Franklin says the ruling that essentially halts the investigation is a “pretty major decision.” Franklin says appeals take time, which will likely put the case on hold for the foreseeable future.