In the wake of the Wisconsin Supreme Court's decision on the John Doe investigation, SpeciaL Prosecutor Fran Schmitz issued a strident statement criticizing the Court's decision. Losing an important case is always disappointing and a lawyer is certainly free to publicly differ with the outcome. But Schmitz' statement is revealing.
He says the Court's ruling "defies common sense" because now someone who contributes $ 25 to a candidate will have his or her name disclosed while someone who gives $ 100,000 to a group who closely coordinates with a candidate will not. That may be so and it may not be desirable, but it is a function of Wisconsin's outdated campaign finance law and not some distortion of that law by the court.
Explaining this stuff in a column length piece is difficult, but here is the problem in a nutshell. The state's campaign finance law applies only to expenditures undertaken for a "political purpose." The statute defines this as anything done to influence an election. Every lawyer with a passing familiarity with campaign finance law knew that this definition was unconstitutional. To avoid that problem, the Government Accountability Board has sometimes - but not always - made clear that the law is limited to express advocacy - calls to elect or defeat a candidate - or its "functional equivalent." Something is the "functional equivalent" of express advocacy only if it is susceptible of no interpretation other than a call to elect or defeat a candidate. This is not my opinion. It is textbook constitutional law.
But the Doe prosecutors were attempting to apply the law to expenditures for things that were not express advocacy or its functional equivalent, i.e., to things that are normally not subject to Wisconsin's campaign finance law. They justified their actions by alleging that these expenditures were "coordinated" with the Walker campaign. The concept of coordination has long been known in campaign finance law but little understood and rarely explored. Wisconsin law does not adeaquately define it or make clear the type of expenditures to which it might be applied.
That's a huge problem. When the state seeks to regulate political activity, it must do so in a very narrow and very clear manner. If it wishes to treat coordinated expenditures as contributions to a candidate, it must adequately define both the conduct that conduct that comprises "coordination" and the content of speech that might be considered "coordinated." This is essential because a failure to do so will deter constitutionally protected speech.
Because its definition of "political purpose" is too broad (and, I would add, because it offers no adequate definition of coordination), Wisconsin's law did not clearly and narrowly apply to coordinated issue advocacy. For that reason, it could not be applied to the activity being investigated by the Doe prosecutors. While Schmitz might think that such a result "defies" common sense, every court that has considered the merits of his position has rejected it. The judge presiding over the John Doe proceeding itself rejected it. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin rejected it. (While the result in that decision was reversed on appeal, the reversal was on procedural grounds and not the merits of the prosecutors' theory.) And, now, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has rejected it.
If that's not convincing enough, the Doe decision was very much in line with a decision of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals which, in a case that did not involve allegations of coordination, also limited the scope of Wisconsin's campaign finance law to express advocacy. It may well be possible for the legislature to pass reasonable disclosure requirements for certain forms of issue advocacy that have been coordinated - in very clearly defined ways - with candidates. If Mr. Schmitz wants the name of that $ 100,000 donor disclosed, he ought to ask the legislature to rewrite the law, not try to throw people in jail.
And therein lies the real tragedy of this episode. I have no problem with lawyers talking aggressive legal positions. I frequently tell my colleagues that if we don't lose a few cases, we aren't trying hard enough to push the law in the right direction. But we don't have the power to send men with guns to people's homes. We can't lock people up. Particularly when the conduct in question involves constitutionally protected political speech, it is absolutely not proper to advance aggressive theories of the law in pursuit of criminal prosecutions.
And this brings us to the raids. Schmitz objects to the Court's characterization of the details of the raids. It doesn't matter. Let's step back and consider what happened here. At the instigation of the Democratic prosecutor of Milwaukee County, a five year long investigation into one side of the political spectrum was conducted. In it's initial iteration, it found almost nothing that it set out to find. That Democratic District Attorney doubled down and launched a new probe. In aid of this latter investigation, prosecutors blanketed Wisconsin's conservative infrastructure with astonishingly broad subpoenas and launched pre-dawn raids on the homes of certain activists. They told the targets that they could tell no one what was being done to them.
There is no dispute about any of that and, quite frankly, other details about the raids don't matter. If true, they merely aggravate the offense. Treating political activists like drug traffickers is highly unusual and sends a clear message to others. Get involved in politics and you may be treated like a criminal.
While Democrats are decrying the state Supreme Court decision, they ought to be relieved. It would have been short work for a Republican prosecutor to launch a similar probe into Democratic operatives. That would have been just as wrong, but if the Doe had been permitted to continue, aggressive investigations of one side by the other would have become the new normal in Wisconsin politics.
And that would defy common sense.