The state Supreme Court has ordered an end to an investigation into what prosecutors had argued was illegal coordination between Governor Scott Walker’s campaign and outside conservative groups during the 2012 recall elections.
The probe, commonly referred to as the “John Doe,” was centered on the theory that the groups were violating state law by working with the campaign on issues such as messaging and fundraising in what amounted to a “criminal scheme.” The Supreme Court had combined three challenges to the investigation, two of which had been brought by unnamed parties.
In a 4-2 decision issued Thursday morning, the majority ruled that the investigation went beyond existing state campaign finance laws and ordered an end to the probe. The decision mirrors a lower court ruling, which found no laws were violated.
Justice Ann Walsh Bradley did not participate in the case.
Writing for the majority, Justice Michael Gableman said “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. In other words, the special prosecutor was the instigator of a “perfect storm” of wrongs that was visited upon the innocent Unnamed Movants and those who dared to associate with them.”
Gableman added, “To be clear, this conclusion ends the John Doe investigation because the special prosecutor’s legal theory is unsupported in either reason or law. Consequently, the investigation is closed.”
In her dissent, Justice Shirley Abrahamson blasted the decision to end the probe, writing that “the majority opinion adopts an unprecedented and faulty interpretation of Wisconsin’s campaign finance law and of the First Amendment. In doing so, the majority opinion delivers a significant blow to Wisconsin’s campaign finance law.”
One of the targets of the probe, the Wisconsin Club for Growth, praised the ruling. Todd Graves, the group’s attorney, said the outcome proves prosecutors “acted as if key protections in our nation’s Bill of Rights simply did not apply.” Graves said they are “pleased that the court agrees with the position we’ve maintained from the time our clients first learned of this improper political investigation.”
A spokeswoman for Governor Scott Walker’s presidential campaign said “Today’s ruling confirmed no laws were broken, a ruling that was previously stated by both a state and federal judge. It is time to move past this unwarranted investigation that has cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Critics were quick to attack the decision, and the potential implications it could have for Wisconsin campaign finance laws. Jay Heck with Common Cause in Wisconsin said “a highly compromised Wisconsin Supreme Court majority has issued a highly flawed decision.” He argued that the ruling “could conceivably now lead to unlimited coordination between outside spending groups with candidate committees and effectively render contribution limits meaningless in Wisconsin.”
Scot Ross with One Wisconsin Now also raised questions about the motivations behind the decision, noting that “The four justices whose opinion halts an investigation and possible prosecution of Walker’s campaign and allies and orders records to be destroyed were the beneficiaries of at least $10 million in campaign spending by parties named in the investigation.”
In a statement, special prosecutor Franciz Schmitz said he was disappointed with the ruling and disagreed with the conclusions drawn by court. “The decision represents a loss for all of the citizens of Wisconsin – independents, Democrats and Republicans alike. It defies common sense that a Wisconsin resident of average means who gives $25 to a campaign has his or her name publicly reported under the law but, according to this decision, someone who gives, for example, $100,000 to a group which closely coordinates with the same campaign can remain anonymous,” he said.
Schmitz also noted that it’s “unfortunate that the citizens of Wisconsin will not have the benefit of a public discussion of the facts and the law because the court decided not to allow oral argument.”
The ruling likely puts a stop to the investigation, which was launched almost three years ago. Heck argued that prosecutors should consider asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision.