Federal judge shuts down Wisconsin witch hunt

Wisconsin’s hoary old Democrat establishment still has enough power to make life rough on political dissidents… or at least they did, until a federal judge pulled the plug on the astonishing witch hunt they’ve been conducting against conservatives. calls it “a monumental victory for targeted conservatives in the secret Wisconsin investigation”:

Judge Rudolph Randa on Tuesday granted a preliminary injunction to stop the politically charged probe, ruling in favor of conservative activist Eric O???Keefe, his Wisconsin Club for growth and ???others.??? The probe had been looking into possible illegal coordination between conservative groups and Republican Gov. Scott Walker???s recall election campaign, but came under fire for the opaque way it was conducted.

O???Keefe and the club in February filed a civil rights lawsuit against Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, two of his assistant DAs, John Doe Special Prosecutor Francis Schmitz, and a shadowy investigator contracted by the Government Accountability Board.

???The Defendants must cease all activities related to the investigation, return all property seized in the investigation from any individual or organization, and permanently destroy all copies of information and other materials obtained through the investigation,??? wrote Randa, federal judge for the U.S. DistrictCourt Eastern District of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.

Randa  further ordered that the plaintiffs in the civil rights case ???and others??? are ???hereby relieved of any and every duty under Wisconsin law to cooperate further with Defendants??? investigation.???

???Any attempt to obtain compliance by any Defendant or John Doe Judge Gregory Peterson is grounds for a contempt finding by this Court,??? he ordered in the 26-page ruling.

Why? Because, according to the judge, the targets of a nearly 3-year-old probe claiming illegal coordination did nothing wrong, and prosecutors have either disregarded the law or interpreted it incorrectly to fit their investigation.

Judge Randa actually said the investigation “cannot square with the First Amendment and what it was meant to protect,” according the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinelbecause “prosecutors essentially shut down Wisconsin Club for Growth’s right to free speech during an election year.”  He even threw in references to the guillotine and gulags.

Somewhere in her comfortable taxpayer-funded retirement, Lois Lerner of the IRS beams warmly upon these tactics.  This whole “John Doe” investigation – in which prosecutors can secure documents and testimony over an extended period of time, while the targets are forbidden to discuss the situation in public – has the same stench of oppression as the IRS scandal, conducted under a similar pretext of cracking down on advocacy groups.  Wisconsin law evidently provides a number of tools that are ripe for political abuse… and which, as the plaintiffs in the case argued, never seem to be turned against left-of-center groups.

At issue is the line between groups like Wisconsin Club for Growth supporting policies strongly identified with particular politicians, such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and directly supporting the candidates themselves.  If the opponents of political speech can blur those lines enough, they can use the power of government to intimidate groups and their donors from getting involved in any debate – in a race between a gun-control zealot and a Second Amendment absolutist, how do you weigh in on either side of the gun-control debate without suffering accusations that you’re secretly and illegally supporting one of the candidates?

Acting upon such accusations in Wisconsin led to nonsense like this, reported by the Journal-Sentinel:

Randa’s decision revealed new details of the probe, including an Oct. 3 raid of the homes of Johnson and Deborah Jordahl, another consultant to the club. Neither could be reached for comment.

“Sheriff deputy vehicles used bright floodlights to illuminate the targets’ homes,” Randa wrote. “Deputies executed the search warrants, seizing business papers, computer equipment, phones, and other devices, while their targets were restrained under police supervision and denied the ability to contact their attorneys.”

“Among the materials seized were many of the Club’s records that were in the possession of Ms. Jordahl and Mr. Johnson,” Randa continued. “The warrants indicate that they were executed at the request of GAB investigator Dean Nickel.”

Johnson’s wife, Valerie, posted two notes on her Facebook page shortly after the raid citing the constitutional amendment protecting against unreasonable searches and seizures. “You don’t spend a lot of time thinking about this amendment until you realize it is being grossly violated,” she wrote on Oct. 11 ??? eight days after the raid.

Randa also wrote that on the same day O’Keefe and others with Wisconsin Club for Growth received subpoenas to turn over the club’s records from March 1, 2009, until the present. The subpoenas were subject to a secrecy order.

O’Keefe estimates the Wisconsin Club for Growth has lost $2 million in fundraising that would have been committed to issue advocacy, Randa wrote.

You can see where the judge would conclude such paramilitary tactics might have a chilling effect on the exercise of First Amendment rights.  Don’t like the idea of having your house bathed in floodlights during a midnight search, while you’re held without even the right to contact your lawyer?  Then shut up.

Judge Randa’s ruling, which was sweeping enough to surprise many local observers, is under appeal from Wisconsin prosecutors, on the grounds that federal courts have no jurisdiction over their investigation.   That seems like a shaky argument, given the First Amendment issues cited by the judge.  The Journal-Sentinel quotes the opinion of University of Wisconsin professor Donald Downs that the argument could end up at the Supreme Court, which he thinks would take it “because they’re hot to trot on these issues right now.”  For the moment, free speech and political assembly are looking a bit more healthy in Wisconsin.

Update: Eric O’Keefe, director of the Wisconsin Club for Growth, welcomed the preliminary injunction: “Thanks to Judge Randa’s decision, I look forward to re-engaging in Wisconsin and speaking out on issues I believe in.”

“This decision is a victory for free speech,” said David B. Rivkin, Jr., partner in the BakerHostetler law firm, which filed suit in federal court on behalf of the Wisconsin Club for Growth.  “For almost three years, the political left in Wisconsin, led by elected prosecutors, has been unsuccessfully trying to silence conservative voices because of their successes.  Since the left can???t win at the ballot box, they secretly resort to the illegal use of government power -???dark power??? – to go after those who do not agree with them.  This nefarious probe had nothing to do with bringing more fairness to the political process.  Judge Rudolph Randa and others saw this for what it was: pure political payback.  We are pleased that the courts have once again confirmed what we have maintained from the start, that the state cannot silence political speech it does not like by violating the constitutional rights of private citizens.”