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Appeals Court declares portions of Wisconsin campaign finance law unconstitutional

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Part 60 of 122 in the series Wisconsin's Secret War
AP file photo

SOME OF THE PLAYERS: Wisconsin Government Accountability Board Director Kevin Kennedy, left, Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm, and Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney Bruce Landgraf have been pivotal players in the John Doe investigation.

 

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

Madison, Wis. — In a ruling with stunning implications on political speech in Wisconsin and beyond, the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals declared unconstitutional portions of state campaign finance laws restricting issue advertising.

The 88-page decision handed down late Wednesday sides with Wisconsin Right to Life Inc. and its state political action committee, which sued to block the enforcement of multiple state statutes and rules against groups that spend money for political speech independently of candidates and parties — so called issue advocacy groups.

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UNCONSTITUTIONAL: The 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has declared major sections of Wisconsin’s campaign finance law unconstitutional. The decision could have major implications on Wisconsin’s secret John Doe probe into dozens of conservative groups.

The 7th Circuit’s ruling, legal experts tell Wisconsin Reporter, could cut the legs out from under a secret John Doe investigation into dozens of conservative organizations on a theory that the groups illegally coordinated with Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign during the state’s partisan recall elections.

In short, the court, in a 3-0 decision, found the state’s corporate-speech ban, the ban on political spending by corporations, unconstitutional under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling that opened up previous restrictions on campaign finance. The Appeals Court remanded the case to the district court to issue a permanent injunction consistent with the opinion.

The court also ruled:

  • The cap on the amount a corporation may spend on fundraising for an affiliated political committee, is unconstitutional.
  •  The lengthy disclaimer requirement under state Government Accountability Board’s regulation is unconstitutional as applied to 30-second radio ads and ads of shorter duration.
  • The statutory definition of “political purposes,” section 11.01(16), and the regulatory definition of “political committee,” GAB § 1.28(1)(a), are unconstitutionally vague and overbroad in the sense meant by federal court precedent. As applied to political speakers other than candidates, their campaign committees and political parties, the definitions are limited to express advocacy.
AP photo

NOT GOOD: U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph Randa shut down the John Doe investigation, asserting that the prosecutors’ application of the law was “simply wrong.”

And that’s where the John Doe investigation may come under further scrutiny.

The probe, launched in August 2012 by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, a Democrat, and involving the Government Accountability Board, the state’s campaign and elections watchdog, is the subject of a federal lawsuit filed by conservative activist Eric O’Keefe and his Wisconsin Club for Growth.

Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph Randa shut down the probe, asserting that the prosecutors’ application of the law was “simply wrong.” His ruling seems to agree with an earlier decision by John Doe presiding Judge Gregory A. Peterson, who earlier this year quashed several subpoenas sought by prosecutors because they had failed to show probable cause.

Randa’s decision is now being appealed before the 7th Circuit.

O’Keefe’s lawsuit contends that the John Doe investigation, featuring what sources have described as “paramilitary” pre-dawn raids on the homes and offices of several conservatives, has violated conservatives’ First Amendment rights. Beyond that, the lawsuit  asserts the prosecutors have no understanding of campaign finance law or have effectively made it up as they’ve gone along.

The prosecutors’ theory reportedly attempts to merge issue advocacy, which does not support or oppose a particular candidate, with express advocacy, which directly supports or opposes a candidate.

As Randa pointed out, there is no evidence to suggest the plaintiffs engaged in express advocacy, which comes with particular prohibitions on campaign coordination.

The Appeals Court in its ruling states a GAB rule that treats issue advocacy during the 30/60-day pre-election period as “fully regulable express advocacy if it mentions a candidate, is unconstitutional.”

“Similarly, GAB § 1.91, which imposes PAClike registration, reporting, and other requirements on all organizations that make independent disbursements, is unconstitutional as applied to organizations not engaged in express advocacy as their major purpose,” the court wrote.

That is precisely where the prosecutors in the John Doe appear to hang their legal hat.

Wisconsin Club for Growth previously took on the campaign finance regulations and won.

The club and an unlikely ally, liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, also filed a lawsuit challenging the rules in federal court in Madison.

In 2010, the GAB agreed not to enforce several provisions of its rules, including its demand that the groups disclose their donors.

Wednesday’s ruling seems to further cement protections for anonymous speech under the First Amendment.

O’Keefe’s civil rights lawsuit may test again whether GAB and the John Doe prosecutors have failed to follow through on GAB’s end of the bargain.

An attorney for Wisconsin Right to Life and its PAC declined to comment on Wednesday, saying he was still digesting the court ruling.

A spokesman for the Government Accountability Board did not immediately return an email seeking comment.

Contact M.D. Kittle at mkittle@watchdog.org

Part of 122 in the series Wisconsin's Secret War
  1. Sources: Secret probe targeting conservatives is abuse of prosecutorial powers
  2. Scary! Phantom prosecutor in Dems’ war on conservatives disappears inside courthouse
  3. EXCLUSIVE: Judge in Democrat-led John Doe probe recuses herself
  4. Democrats’ ‘intelligence-gathering’ spreads in Wisconsin
  5. Democrats tap anti-terror expert to head secret probe of Wisconsin conservatives
  6. Sheriff Clarke: John Doe case shows Milwaukee DA is ‘weaponized for political purposes’
  7. Clarke: John Doe into conservatives ‘unbridled,’ ‘dangerous’ and ‘tainted’
  8. Sources: New judge named in Democrat-led secret probe
  9. Vendetta justice? Criticism growing about John Doe prosecutor Bruce Landgraf
  10. Will Wisconsin’s own ‘Miserable’ inspector jail conservative activist for speaking out about Dem probe?
  11. Conservative targets bring in big guns to Democrat-led John Doe fight
  12. ‘Dangerous’ game: Former FEC official blasts Democrats’ secret investigation of conservative groups
  13. Center for Media and Democracy: Liberals are morally superior
  14. Wisconsin Dems suddenly support political investigations
  15. WI Republican attorney general to represent judges in Democrat-led John Doe probe
  16. Republicans speak out about silent John Doe targeting conservatives
  17. Biggest secret in John Doe may be just how judges and special prosecutors are selected
  18. WSJ: John Doe judge deals body blow to secret probe targeting conservatives
  19. Vos: Wait until John Doe in ‘rearview mirror’ before revisiting law
  20. Lawsuits looming in Wisconsin’s crumbling John Doe probe?
  21. Conservative to Democrat prosecutors: Shut down secret political probe or face civil rights lawsuit
  22. John Doe target O’Keefe taking on IRS, too
  23. Lawmaker: Wisconsin’s John Doe like Christie’s ‘Bridgegate’
  24. Target files civil rights lawsuit against Wisconsin’s John Doe prosecutors
  25. Disparate treatment: Civil rights lawsuit claims conservative speech trampled
  26. Liberal group looking to take Wisconsin’s John Doe national
  27. John Doe judge: ‘Results of the John Doe speak for themselves’
  28. John Doe special prosecutor appeals judge’s ruling quashing subpoenas
  29. John Doe prosecutor pushed for brain-damaged man’s conviction in ATF debacle
  30. Conservatives counterpunch John Doe prosecutors’ move to stall injunction
  31. Shadowy John Doe investigator invokes federalism in civil rights lawsuit
  32. John Doe prosecutors wanted higher-priced lawyers, source says
  33. Secret agent Dean Nickel’s defense: ‘Dean Nickel is not responsible’
  34. D’oh! John Doe prosecutors claim secrecy protection – after filing secret documents
  35. Recusal in John Doe case raises questions of fairness, purpose
  36. Absolute immunity makes it tough to prosecute the prosecutors of John Doe
  37. Poll suggests Dems’ big ‘secret’ weapon against Walker is backfiring
  38. ‘Easy target’: Kelly Rindfleisch breaks silence about John Doe probe
  39. SCOTUS ruling on campaign finance shows abuse of John Doe, targets say
  40. Nobody will say what John Doe’s shadow man did, but taxpayers are paying his legal bill
  41. Judge denies John Doe prosecutors’ move to dismiss civil rights suit
  42. Civil rights expert: John Doe law is ‘un-American,’ like something from ‘Nazi Germany’
  43. Target: John Doe prosecutors making up campaign law as they go along
  44. John Doe, as it is being used, must go, WI senator says
  45. John Doe target says prosecutors latest move another delay tactic
  46. John Doe prosecutors sound defensive in latest court filings
  47. Federal judge denies John Doe prosecutors’ motion to stall civil rights case
  48. Media coalition asks judge to open sealed John Doe documents
  49. Are John Doe prosecutors sweating out federal judge’s decision?
  50. John Doe is dead: Judge stops WI prosecutors’ probe into conservatives
  51. This is what the Fourth Amendment looks like?
  52. What’s next for now-defunct John Doe probe?
  53. Appeals court stalls judge’s order halting John Doe probe
  54. Federal judge’s ruling could open up sealed John Doe records
  55. Federal judge orders John Doe probe shut down again
  56. Lawmakers call for review of GAB’s secret John Doe activities, funds
  57. Lawyers, lawyers everywhere and other dispatches from John Doe Land
  58. Secret’s out: The world is beginning to learn more about WI’s John Doe
  59. Still their little secret? Questions remain on John Doe gag order
  60. Appeals Court declares portions of Wisconsin campaign finance law unconstitutional
  61. John Doe prosecutors suddenly support opening sealed court records
  62. Expert: It’s as if GAB decided ‘Citizens United didn’t exist’
  63. John Doe prosecutors voice phony outrage, legal source says
  64. GAB still reviewing court ruling declaring WI campaign finance law unconstitutional
  65. State Farm still doesn’t want to cover John Doe prosecutor’s legal bills
  66. For the Walker-hating left, John Doe is ‘Mission Accomplished’
  67. Sources: No urgency in WI Supreme Court on John Doe
  68. Would Walker settlement with John Doe prosecutors be a deal with the devil?
  69. Contempt questions surround reported John Doe deal talks
  70. Walker’s John Doe response raises more questions than answers
  71. Sources: Attorney General passes on defending GAB in John Doe cases
  72. Attorney to judge: Don’t let John Doe prosecutor ‘moot’ injunction
  73. John Doe targets sue Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board
  74. Federal judge says his order halting John Doe probe should be clear to prosecutor
  75. John Doe special prosecutor’s bill still shrouded in secrecy
  76. ‘Are these kind of armed pre-dawn raids standard operating procedure?’
  77. John Doe special prosecutor obeys judge’s order
  78. ‘Never-ending’ John Doe never ended, WSJ reports
  79. Appeals court upholds judge’s order shutting down John Doe probe
  80. O’Keefe keeps collecting big wins in John Doe lawsuit
  81. John Doe I judge says he’s not responsible for John Doe II
  82. Will taxpayers have to pay for frivolity of John Doe prosecutors?
  83. John Doe prosecutors jump back into the dark?
  84. What about those prosecutors? Questions surround other John Doe DAs
  85. Humiliated in court, WI Dems take their anti-conservative John Doe probe to the media
  86. Federal judge blasts John Doe prosecutors – again – as he denies records release
  87. Right on cue: Document dump fuels anti-Walker donation drive
  88. Wall Street Journal points out ‘disgrace’ of mainstream John Doe reporting
  89. Expert: John Doe raids raise ‘troubling’ Fourth Amendment questions
  90. Kelly Rindfleisch tells conservatives, ‘Don’t back down’
  91. Mainstream media forced to walk back Walker ‘criminal scheme’ narrative
  92. John Doe prosecutors engaged in premature justification, conservatives say
  93. Is John Doe probe a case of a mini NSA in Wisconsin?
  94. AG opinion means accountability board’s John Doe secrets are safe — for now
  95. Senator asks attorney general to compel GAB to open up its books
  96. GAB now playing secrets in state John Doe lawsuit
  97. Will John Doe prosecutors launch lengthy probe against Trek Bicycle?
  98. John Doe prosecutors engaged in war of words — lots and lots of words
  99. Judge denies conservatives’ request to add GAB to civil rights lawsuit
  100. Oral arguments set in John Doe prosecutors’ appeal
  101. In John Doe Land, the left doesn’t illegally coordinate
  102. John Doe document blitz must have broken mainstream media’s heart
  103. Senator: Looks like accountability board is hiding something
  104. Kelly Rindfleisch appeal to test validity of John Doe digital searches
  105. Conservatives in John Doe battle know disclosure comes with a heavy price
  106. Appeals court orders release of some John Doe documents
  107. Taxpayers on the hook up to $25,000 for GAB’s legal maneuvers
  108. Overheated media erroneously bring back Walker ‘criminal scheme’ theme
  109. ‘Retaliation’: Docs show state prosecutors launched mini-NSA probe of WI conservatives
  110. John Doe prosecutors take desperate, unethical slap
  111. Walker ‘smoking gun’ story has tiny glaring flaw
  112. Wisconsin prosecutors aim to shut down conservatives
  113. Conservatives appeal to common sense in John Doe appeals case
  114. Conservatives say ‘incorrect disclosure’ of John Doe docs no ‘tiny error’
  115. First Amendment big guns back targets of John Doe probe
  116. Was John Doe judge a rubber stamp?
  117. $25,000 and counting: WI taxpayers’ bill so far to defend GAB and its ‘monster’
  118. Another blow for Wisconsin’s restrictive campaign finance law
  119. Wisconsin prosecutors appeal for protection from blowback in partisan probe
  120. Is John Doe story colored with a bit of ‘Macbeth?’
  121. GAB director says agency just following the law in John Doe probe
  122. Kelly Rindfleisch: Where are the tears for the kids the Milwaukee school system failed?

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Kittle is a 25-year veteran of radio, newspaper and online journalism. In July 2011, Kittle joined Watchdog.org as bureau chief for Wisconsin Reporter. He has spent much of the past three years covering the seismic political changes taking place in the Badger State. Last year, Kittle joined Watchdog’s national reporting team, covering everything from energy policy to governmental assaults on civil rights. Beyond being published in Wisconsin’s daily newspapers and in multimedia news outlets, Kittle’s work has appeared on Fox News, and in Human Events, Reason Magazine, Newsmax and Town Hall. His special investigation into a politically charged John Doe probe, “Wisconsin’s Secret War,” was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze. Kittle has made several appearances on Fox News, including “On the Record with Greta Van Susteren. He serves as weekly politics commentator for Lake 96.1 FM in Lake Geneva, and WRJN-AM 1400 in Racine. His resume includes multiple awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, Wisconsin Broadcast Association and other journalism associations. Contact Kittle at mkittle@watchdog.org.