The Wisconsin Supreme Court has effectively killed the “John Doe” case which led to home raids and intimidation of a wide range of Wisconsin conservative activists.

The decision is embedded at the bottom of this post.

Here is the key finding, which completely shreds both the legal theories and motives of the prosecutors, completely vindicates the targets, and praises those who fought back legally against prosecutorial misconduct (emphasis added):

¶133 Our lengthy discussion of these three cases can be distilled into a few simple, but important, points. 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. It is fortunate, indeed, for every other citizen of this great State who is interested in the protection of fundamental liberties that the special prosecutor chose as his targets innocent citizens who had both the will and the means to fight the unlimited resources of an unjust prosecution. Further, 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. Let one point be clear: our conclusion today ends this unconstitutional John Doe investigation.

Andrew Grossman, who filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case and who has served as counsel to Eric O’Keefe and the Wisconsin Club for Growth (two of the targets of the investigation) in various federal civil rights litigation against the prosecutors, provided me with the following statement:

Today’s decision puts an end to one of the worst abuses of power ever seen in Wisconsin law enforcement. The next step will be holding those responsible accountable for their actions. The Court’s recognition that the John Doe was a politically motivated “dragnet” of Gov. Walker’s allies provides strong support for Cindy Archer’s civil rights action against the Milwaukee prosecutors and lawsuits by potentially any of the other John Doe targets.

Background on John Doe abuses:

We have been covering the John Doe cases for a year and a half. You can read all out posts in the John Doe (WI) Tag.

Here are some key posts:

Analysis:

The court found that Wisconsin statutes did not limit “issue advocacy,” and that any attempt to so limit speech was unconstitutional:

¶7 We can resolve the original action, Two Unnamed Petitioners, by first examining whether the statutory definitions of “committee,” “contributions,” “disbursements,” and “political purposes” in Wis. Stat. §§ 11.01(4), (6), (7), and (16) are limited to express advocacy[4] or whether they encompass the conduct of coordination between a candidate or a campaign committee and an independent organization that engages in issue advocacy. Second, if the definitions extend to issue advocacy coordination, what then constitutes prohibited “coordination?”

* * *

¶41 We turn first to Two Unnamed Petitioners, the original action filed with the Wisconsin Supreme Court. This case requires us to interpret Wisconsin’s campaign finance law, Wis. Stat. Ch. 11. By its very nature, this task involves fundamental questions regarding the scope of the government’s ability to regulate political speech. To resolve this case, we must engage in statutory interpretation of the phrase “political purposes,” which includes all activities “done for the purpose of influencing [an] election.” Wis. Stat. § 11.01(16). We conclude, consistent with the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 3 of the Wisconsin Constitution, that the plain language of “political purposes” in Wis. Stat. § 11.01(16) is unconstitutionally overbroad and vague if it is not given a limiting construction and applied to only express advocacy and its functional equivalent. This conclusion invalidates the special prosecutor’s theory of the case and ends the John Doe investigation. Therefore, we agree with the Unnamed Movants and grant their requested relief.

The Court ripped into the investigating prosecutors (emphasis added):

¶68 Having reached our conclusion about the scope of conduct regulated by Chapter 11, we now turn to the special prosecutor’s theories of coordination and whether the alleged conduct is regulated under Wisconsin law.[23] The special prosecutor has disregarded the vital principle that in our nation and our state political speech is a fundamental right and is afforded the highest level of protection. The special prosecutor’s theories, rather than “assur[ing] [the] unfettered interchange of ideas for the bringing about of political and social changes desired by the people,” Roth, 354 U.S. at 484, instead would assure that such political speech will be investigated with paramilitary-style home invasions conducted in the pre-dawn hours and then prosecuted and punished. In short, the special prosecutor completely ignores the command that, when seeking to regulate issue advocacy groups, such regulation must be done with “narrow specificity.” Barland II, 751 F.3d at 811 (quotations omitted).

¶69 The limiting construction that we apply makes clear that the special prosecutor’s theories are unsupportable in law given that the theories rely on overbroad and vague statutes. By limiting the definition of “political purposes” to express advocacy and its functional equivalent, political speech continues to be protected as a fundamental First Amendment right.

The court made clear the investigation was stopped cold in its tracks:

¶76 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. Consistent with our decision and the order entered by Reserve Judge Peterson, we order that the special prosecutor and the district attorneys involved in this investigation 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. All Unnamed Movants are relieved of any duty to cooperate further with the investigation.

The Court went on in addition to uphold a lower court’s quashing of a subpoenas and search warrants sought by the prosecutors, finding that the John Doe powers did not allow “a fishing expedition”:

¶91 Reasonableness and particularity are not just requirements of search warrants, however. Subpoenas issued by courts, and by extension John Doe judges, must also satisfy these requirements of the Fourth Amendment. In re John Doe Proceeding, 272 Wis. 2d 208, ¶38. A John Doe proceeding, with its broad investigatory powers, must never be allowed to become a fishing expedition.

¶92 It is difficult, if not impossible, to overstate the importance of the role of the John Doe judge. If he does not conduct the investigation fairly, as a neutral and detached magistrate, the risk of harm to innocent targets of the investigation-and we remain mindful that all such targets are presumed innocent-is too great. Through the use of a John Doe proceeding, “law enforcement officers are able to obtain the benefit of powers not otherwise available to them, i.e., the power to subpoena witnesses, to take testimony under oath, and to compel the testimony of a reluctant witness.” Washington, 83 Wis. 2d at 822-23. Such powers, if not wielded with care and skill may serve to transform a John Doe proceeding into an implement of harassment and persecution by a vengeful or unethical prosecutor. Thus, John Doe judges must be mindful of this danger and zealously guard the rights of all citizens against over-reach.

The Court then summarized its holdings, just so there was no doubt that it had completely rejected the prosecutors’ legal theory on coordination of issue advocacy (emphasis added):

¶133 Our lengthy discussion of these three cases can be distilled into a few simple, but important, points. 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. It is fortunate, indeed, for every other citizen of this great State who is interested in the protection of fundamental liberties that the special prosecutor chose as his targets innocent citizens who had both the will and the means to fight the unlimited resources of an unjust prosecution. Further, 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. Let one point be clear: our conclusion today ends this unconstitutional John Doe investigation.

¶134 In Two Unnamed Petitioners, we hold that the definition of “political purposes” in Wis. Stat. § 11.01(16) is unconstitutionally overbroad and vague under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 3 of the Wisconsin Constitution because its language “‘is so sweeping that its sanctions may be applied to constitutionally protected conduct which the state is not permitted to regulate.'” Janssen, 219 Wis. 2d at 374 (quoting Bachowski, 139 Wis. 2d at 411). However, a readily available limiting construction exists that we will apply and that will prevent the chilling of otherwise protected speech; namely, that “political purposes” is limited to express advocacy and its functional equivalent as those terms are defined in Buckley and WRTL II. With this limiting construction in place, Chapter 11 does not proscribe any of the alleged conduct of any of the Unnamed Movants. The special prosecutor has not alleged any express advocacy, and issue advocacy, whether coordinated or not, is “beyond the reach of [Ch. 11].” Barland II, 751 F.3d at 815. Accordingly, we invalidate the special prosecutor’s theory of the case, and we grant the relief requested by the Unnamed Movants.

¶135 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. Consistent with our decision and the order entered by Reserve Judge Peterson, we order that the special prosecutor and the district attorneys involved in this investigation 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. All Unnamed Movants are relieved of any duty to cooperate further with the investigation.

More Analysis to follow.

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Wisconsin Supreme Court – John Doe Decision