We previously wrote in detail about the “John Doe” investigation in Wisconsin targeting a wide range of conservative groups and Scott Walker supporters relating to the failed Democratic attempt to recall Walker.[*]  See Secret probe of conservatives makes Wisconsin ground zero in First Amendment war for the details.

Good news.  The subpoenas issued in the secret probe have been quashed in a secret court ruling uncovered by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Secret ruling deals major setback to John Doe probe into recall elections:

Prosecutors in the John Doe investigation into spending and fundraising during the raucous Wisconsin recall elections were dealt a major procedural blow Friday, according to sources.

The five-county investigation remains open, but subpoenas issued in the probe to conservative political groups supporting Gov. Scott Walker were quashed, sources familiar with the development said. The ruling — which is sealed — raises First Amendment concerns about the subpoenas.

The Journal Sentinel has not turned up any Democratic candidates or liberal interest groups involved in the recall elections that have been contacted by John Doe prosecutors.

“The John Doe is still open,” said one individual familiar with the case.

But other sources said Friday’s ruling seriously undercuts the well-publicized probe, launched in the summer of 2012. Those familiar with the case said the decision was handed down by retired Appeals Court Judge Gregory A. Peterson, the presiding judge in the investigation who took over the case in November.

Peterson said late Friday that he could not comment on any aspect of the case because the proceedings are still covered by a secrecy order. John Doe investigations allow prosecutors to work in secret while compelling witnesses to turn over documents and give testimony.

Prosecutors and others involved in the case declined to discuss the major development. Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm and his top deputy, Kent Lovern, did not return calls.

Sources have said the investigation — first disclosed by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel — is looking at whether such conservative groups as the Wisconsin Club for Growth coordinated illegally with GOP candidates or others during the 2011 and 2012 recall races. In the most prominent contest, Walker beat back an attempt by Democrats to remove him.

The Journal-Sentinel pointed to this Facebook post by one of the targets:

RJ Johnson Wisconsin John Doe Facebook Post

The Wall Street Journal, which was out front in exposing the political motivations of the probe, adds:

Democrats would love to intimidate and muzzle the local activists who rallied to Mr. Walker’s recall defense. And the subpoenas all but shut down these activists, forcing them to hire lawyers and defend themselves rather than contribute to the political debate in an election year. Beyond 2014, the prosecutors’ goal seems to be raise the cost of participation so the subpoena targets decide to quit politics….

The John Doe probe isn’t over, and no doubt Messrs. Schmitz and Landgraf will appeal the ruling to quash. But that should give the subpoena targets an opening to expand their defense beyond merely stopping this political trolling exercise. They can marshall constitutional arguments that should aim to dismantle the prosecutorial machinery of these illegal campaign-finance investigations.

The John Doe process has become a political weapon intended to serve partisan ends regardless of the law. Kudos to a judge who was brave enough to read the law and stop it, but there’s more free-speech defending to do.

No doubt that Wisconsin’s long, strange trip is not over.

[* A bit of trivia for readers, we first introduced our Fireworks and music nuke weapon the night Walker won the recall.]

 
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