By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON, Wis. – A national and state coalition of journalism associations is asking a federal judge to unseal secret records in Wisconsin’s John Doe investigation into dozens of conservative organizations.
These First Amendment advocates, led by the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, on Thursday filed a motion in the U.S. District Court Eastern District of Wisconsin in Milwaukee seeking to intervene in a civil rights lawsuit brought by conservative targets of the clandestine probe.
The coalition, including the American Society of News Editors, Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and Wisconsin Newspaper Association, is challenging U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph Randa’s orders sealing documents associated with the John Doe.
“The press and the general public have a constitutional and common law right of access to civil proceedings and court documents, including the filings sealed in this case,” the coalition writes in its motion. “The First Amendment right of access can be overcome only by a showing that restrictions on access are necessary to serve a compelling interest, and any such restrictions must be narrowly tailored.
Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, two of his assistant DAs, John Doe Special Prosecutor Francis Schmitz and a shadowy Government Accountability Board-contracted investigator have sought and received permission from Randa to seal records that fall under the investigation’s secrecy order.
Coalition members argue that Randa failed to review the necessity of sealing the documents before he issued the order, something that runs counter to judicial protocol.
“Before entering its sealing orders, the Court was required to make specific, reviewable findings in support of sealing. It did not do so. Indeed, the sole apparent reason for the sealing orders is the existence of a secrecy order entered in the John Doe proceeding—an order which is itself secret and under seal,” the motion states.
“That the John Doe judge deemed the entirety of the proceeding before him ‘secret,’ however, does not relieve this Court of its independent obligation to determine whether sealing the record in this separate lawsuit is warranted.”
Citing separate court rulings, the motion notes that a court must be “firmly convinced that disclosure is inappropriate before arriving at a decision limiting access,” and “(a)ny doubts must be resolved in favor of disclosure.”
Coalition members argue that there is “no compelling or overriding interest” that would “justify sealing all information” related to the John Doe proceeding.
“First, John Doe proceedings are not entitled to any special presumption of secrecy that would permit the broad sealing of related court documents,” the motion asserts. “In fact, John Doe proceedings are presumptively open to the public under both Wisconsin and federal law.”
The coalition argues that the secret investigation is no longer a big secret after months of leaks in the press and in courts.
“A considerable amount of information about the proceeding, including details placed into the public domain by defendants, has already been disclosed to the public and reported in the press,” the motion states. “Thus, to the extent absolute secrecy was ever necessary to ensure the effectiveness of the John Doe proceeding, that interest is no longer present.”
John Doe proceedings are similar to grand jury investigations, without the benefit of a jury of peers. Instead, a single judge presides over the proceedings, designed to gather information to determine whether a criminal complaint should be issued. The judge has extraordinary “investigatory” powers to subpoena and examine witnesses to “ascertain whether a crime has been committed and by whom,” according to the motion.
As the coalition points out, “the public has a powerful interest in obtaining access to the sealed information” in the civil rights case.
“This litigation arises out of alleged abuse of a judicial procedure by local government officials for political gain,” the motion states. “It thus implicates the public’s interest in observing the functioning of its judicial system and the conduct of the executive branch.”
Conservative activist Eric O’Keefe and his Wisconsin Club for Growth are suing Chisholm and crew, alleging the John Doe prosecutors violated the conservatives’ First Amendment rights in the lengthy, secret investigation into 29 conservative organizations.
The lawsuit, filed in February, is a detailed account of what O’Keefe and the Wisconsin Club for Growth allege to be a partisan witch hunt, led by Chisholm, a Democrat, to punish conservatives in the state for their political successes in recent years. The complaint seeks a preliminary injunction, halting the investigation.
Randa earlier this month, thoroughly rejected the prosecutors’ motion to dismiss the civil rights lawsuit, pushing aside their argument that federal courts generally must abstain from taking up federal constitutional claims that involve or call into question ongoing state proceedings.
On Thursday, the judge denied a motion by the prosecutors to stay the judge’s decision, pending an appeal.
“The defendants now attempt to derail this ruling by appealing the Court’s decision and moving to stay pending appeal,” Randa wrote.
Citing legal precedent, coalition members argue that court documents and proceedings are “public rather than private property,” and that they must be “as open as possible” to public inspection.
And the coalition has been down this legal road before, intervening in a case that eventually led to the release of documents in another John Doe investigation targeting Wisconsin conservatives.
In October, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals granted a motion to intervene filed by the coalition and other media organizations in the criminal appeal of Kelly Rindfleisch. The former deputy chief of staff to Gov. Scott Walker when Walker was Milwaukee County executive was convicted on a charge of misconduct in office stemming from the Doe, also led by Chisholm’s office. Rindfleisch had sought to seal the documents. The records, including thousands of pages of emails and other documents held in the investigation were released earlier this year.
Founded in 1970, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is dedicated to preserving the freedom of the press guaranteed by the First Amendment, according to the nonprofit organization.
Coalition members argue the drive to release documents sealed in the John Doe civil rights case fits that First Amendment mission.
Contact M.D. Kittle at email@example.com
- Sources: Secret probe targeting conservatives is abuse of prosecutorial powers
- Scary! Phantom prosecutor in Dems’ war on conservatives disappears inside courthouse
- EXCLUSIVE: Judge in Democrat-led John Doe probe recuses herself
- Democrats’ ‘intelligence-gathering’ spreads in Wisconsin
- Democrats tap anti-terror expert to head secret probe of Wisconsin conservatives
- Sheriff Clarke: John Doe case shows Milwaukee DA is ‘weaponized for political purposes’
- Clarke: John Doe into conservatives ‘unbridled,’ ‘dangerous’ and ‘tainted’
- Sources: New judge named in Democrat-led secret probe
- Vendetta justice? Criticism growing about John Doe prosecutor Bruce Landgraf
- Will Wisconsin’s own ‘Miserable’ inspector jail conservative activist for speaking out about Dem probe?
- Conservative targets bring in big guns to Democrat-led John Doe fight
- ‘Dangerous’ game: Former FEC official blasts Democrats’ secret investigation of conservative groups
- Center for Media and Democracy: Liberals are morally superior
- Wisconsin Dems suddenly support political investigations
- WI Republican attorney general to represent judges in Democrat-led John Doe probe
- Republicans speak out about silent John Doe targeting conservatives
- Biggest secret in John Doe may be just how judges and special prosecutors are selected
- WSJ: John Doe judge deals body blow to secret probe targeting conservatives
- Vos: Wait until John Doe in ‘rearview mirror’ before revisiting law
- Lawsuits looming in Wisconsin’s crumbling John Doe probe?
- Conservative to Democrat prosecutors: Shut down secret political probe or face civil rights lawsuit
- John Doe target O’Keefe taking on IRS, too
- Lawmaker: Wisconsin’s John Doe like Christie’s ‘Bridgegate’
- Target files civil rights lawsuit against Wisconsin’s John Doe prosecutors
- Disparate treatment: Civil rights lawsuit claims conservative speech trampled
- Liberal group looking to take Wisconsin’s John Doe national
- John Doe judge: ‘Results of the John Doe speak for themselves’
- John Doe special prosecutor appeals judge’s ruling quashing subpoenas
- John Doe prosecutor pushed for brain-damaged man’s conviction in ATF debacle
- Conservatives counterpunch John Doe prosecutors’ move to stall injunction
- Shadowy John Doe investigator invokes federalism in civil rights lawsuit
- John Doe prosecutors wanted higher-priced lawyers, source says
- Secret agent Dean Nickel’s defense: ‘Dean Nickel is not responsible’
- D’oh! John Doe prosecutors claim secrecy protection – after filing secret documents
- Recusal in John Doe case raises questions of fairness, purpose
- Absolute immunity makes it tough to prosecute the prosecutors of John Doe
- Poll suggests Dems’ big ‘secret’ weapon against Walker is backfiring
- ‘Easy target': Kelly Rindfleisch breaks silence about John Doe probe
- SCOTUS ruling on campaign finance shows abuse of John Doe, targets say
- Nobody will say what John Doe’s shadow man did, but taxpayers are paying his legal bill
- Judge denies John Doe prosecutors’ move to dismiss civil rights suit
- Civil rights expert: John Doe law is ‘un-American,’ like something from ‘Nazi Germany’
- Target: John Doe prosecutors making up campaign law as they go along
- John Doe, as it is being used, must go, WI senator says
- John Doe target says prosecutors latest move another delay tactic
- John Doe prosecutors sound defensive in latest court filings
- Federal judge denies John Doe prosecutors’ motion to stall civil rights case
- Media coalition asks judge to open sealed John Doe documents
- Are John Doe prosecutors sweating out federal judge’s decision?
- John Doe is dead: Judge stops WI prosecutors’ probe into conservatives
- This is what the Fourth Amendment looks like?
- What’s next for now-defunct John Doe probe?
- Appeals court stalls judge’s order halting John Doe probe
- Federal judge’s ruling could open up sealed John Doe records
- Federal judge orders John Doe probe shut down again
- Lawmakers call for review of GAB’s secret John Doe activities, funds
- Lawyers, lawyers everywhere and other dispatches from John Doe Land
- Secret’s out: The world is beginning to learn more about WI’s John Doe
- Still their little secret? Questions remain on John Doe gag order
- Appeals Court declares portions of Wisconsin campaign finance law unconstitutional
- John Doe prosecutors suddenly support opening sealed court records
- Expert: It’s as if GAB decided ‘Citizens United didn’t exist’
- John Doe prosecutors voice phony outrage, legal source says
- GAB still reviewing court ruling declaring WI campaign finance law unconstitutional
- State Farm still doesn’t want to cover John Doe prosecutor’s legal bills
- For the Walker-hating left, John Doe is ‘Mission Accomplished’
- Sources: No urgency in WI Supreme Court on John Doe
- Would Walker settlement with John Doe prosecutors be a deal with the devil?
- Contempt questions surround reported John Doe deal talks
- Walker’s John Doe response raises more questions than answers
- Sources: Attorney General passes on defending GAB in John Doe cases
- Attorney to judge: Don’t let John Doe prosecutor ‘moot’ injunction
- John Doe targets sue Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board
- Federal judge says his order halting John Doe probe should be clear to prosecutor
- John Doe special prosecutor’s bill still shrouded in secrecy
- ‘Are these kind of armed pre-dawn raids standard operating procedure?’
- John Doe special prosecutor obeys judge’s order
- ‘Never-ending’ John Doe never ended, WSJ reports
- Appeals court upholds judge’s order shutting down John Doe probe
- O’Keefe keeps collecting big wins in John Doe lawsuit
- John Doe I judge says he’s not responsible for John Doe II
- Will taxpayers have to pay for frivolity of John Doe prosecutors?
- John Doe prosecutors jump back into the dark?
- What about those prosecutors? Questions surround other John Doe DAs
- Humiliated in court, WI Dems take their anti-conservative John Doe probe to the media
- Federal judge blasts John Doe prosecutors – again – as he denies records release
- Right on cue: Document dump fuels anti-Walker donation drive
- Wall Street Journal points out ‘disgrace’ of mainstream John Doe reporting
- Expert: John Doe raids raise ‘troubling’ Fourth Amendment questions
- Kelly Rindfleisch tells conservatives, ‘Don’t back down’
- Mainstream media forced to walk back Walker ‘criminal scheme’ narrative
- John Doe prosecutors engaged in premature justification, conservatives say
- Is John Doe probe a case of a mini NSA in Wisconsin?
- AG opinion means accountability board’s John Doe secrets are safe — for now
- Senator asks attorney general to compel GAB to open up its books
- GAB now playing secrets in state John Doe lawsuit
- Will John Doe prosecutors launch lengthy probe against Trek Bicycle?
- John Doe prosecutors engaged in war of words — lots and lots of words
- Judge denies conservatives’ request to add GAB to civil rights lawsuit
- Oral arguments set in John Doe prosecutors’ appeal
- In John Doe Land, the left doesn’t illegally coordinate
- John Doe document blitz must have broken mainstream media’s heart
- Senator: Looks like accountability board is hiding something
- Kelly Rindfleisch appeal to test validity of John Doe digital searches
- Conservatives in John Doe battle know disclosure comes with a heavy price
- Appeals court orders release of some John Doe documents
- Taxpayers on the hook up to $25,000 for GAB’s legal maneuvers
- Overheated media erroneously bring back Walker ‘criminal scheme’ theme
- ‘Retaliation': Docs show state prosecutors launched mini-NSA probe of WI conservatives
- John Doe prosecutors take desperate, unethical slap
- Walker ‘smoking gun’ story has tiny glaring flaw
- Wisconsin prosecutors aim to shut down conservatives
- Conservatives appeal to common sense in John Doe appeals case
- Conservatives say ‘incorrect disclosure’ of John Doe docs no ‘tiny error’
- First Amendment big guns back targets of John Doe probe
- Was John Doe judge a rubber stamp?
- $25,000 and counting: WI taxpayers’ bill so far to defend GAB and its ‘monster’
- Another blow for Wisconsin’s restrictive campaign finance law
- Wisconsin prosecutors appeal for protection from blowback in partisan probe
- Is John Doe story colored with a bit of ‘Macbeth?’
- GAB director says agency just following the law in John Doe probe
- Kelly Rindfleisch: Where are the tears for the kids the Milwaukee school system failed?
- Rindfleisch attorney: Appeals court can protect the Fourth Amendment in Digital Age
- Source: Wisconsin Supreme Court doesn’t want political heat of John Doe case
- Appeals court reverses John Doe injunction, but Wisconsin’s secret war far from over
- A whistleblower’s story: Taking on a ‘hyper-partisan’ district attorney
- Conservative O’Keefe seeks investigation into John Chisholm and his John Doe
- Who’s paying the bill? Report casts questions on GAB and John Doe payments
- Target of secret John Doe probe is fighting back and speaking out
- The day John Doe rushed through the door
- Rindfleisch: ‘Rape’ not too strong a word for how violated John Doe targets feel
- Conservative group asks court to stop John Doe ‘constitutional injury’
- Conservatives to appeals court: ‘You don’t know Doe’
- Armed and growing: Milwaukee County DA beefs up his ‘police force’
- Federal judge stops John Doe prosecutors from bothering conservative group