U.S. Supreme Court Won't Revive Probe of Wisconsin Governor

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By Kenneth P. Doyle

Oct. 3 — The U.S. Supreme Court won't review a state court ruling that shut down an investigation of possible illegal campaign coordination between Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) and conservative advocacy organizations ( Chisholm v. Two Unnamed Petitioners, U.S., No. 15-1416, cert. denied 10/3/16 ).

The high court's Oct. 3 refusal to intervene in the case involving the “John Doe” probe by state prosecutors came despite newly revealed documents reported by The Guardian newspaper indicating that Walker participated in a fundraising scheme involving undisclosed contributions during a 2012 recall election.

Supporters of stronger campaign finance regulation had hoped the Supreme Court would grant a petition for certiorari filed by a group of Wisconsin district attorneys, who objected to a 4-2 ruling in 2015 by the Wisconsin Supreme Court (10 WCR 1033, 12/11/15). The prosecutors argued the state court's ruling on coordination was incorrect and that some of the state court justices should have been recused from the case (11 WCR 20, 1/8/16).

Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel (R) urged the U.S. Supreme Court to let the state court ruling stand, arguing that it reflected Wisconsin's state law on coordination and that the state court justices who received support from conservative groups were allowed to participate in deciding the case.

Split Supreme Court

Some observers said the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court may have been a key factor in its decision not to take on the Wisconsin case. Following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February, the court is now equally divided between four justices that have supported rolling back campaign finance rules and four who have indicated they believe strong rules are needed.

“Given the split on the U.S. Supreme Court, it is perhaps not surprising that the justices declined to wade into this politically charged, highly complex case that raises difficult legal issues that may divide the court,” Brendan Fischer, associate counsel for the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center, said in a statement.

Fischer's organization supports strong campaign finance rules. He said it was important to recognize the Supreme Court action did not condone Walker's activities in secretly telling out-of-state donors, including corporations, that they could support the governor's campaign by secretly giving to nonprofits like the Wisconsin Club for Growth. After winning reelection, Walker signed legislation advancing the interests of the secret donors, Fischer said.

“Anyone who looks at the evidence in this case, recently published by The Guardian, would come to the conclusion that this is not how our political system should work,” he said. “What this tells us is that we need a functioning Supreme Court that can clarify and improve its current jurisprudence on the role of money in politics.”

New Probe Urged

Jay Heck, director of the pro-regulation Common Cause Wisconsin, said the issues behind the Wisconsin case are still relevant and that the newly revealed documents raised additional questions about Walker's possibly illegal fundraising activity. Heck said this new information merits beginning a new investigation by state prosecutors.

On the other hand, Republicans in Wisconsin who criticized the Walker probe hailed the state supreme court for finally shutting down the campaign finance probe. Republican state Rep. David Craig said the court's action ended “an unfortunate chapter of government chilling free speech in Wisconsin.”

Craig called for creation of a special committee in the state Legislature to determine “if abusive behavior was engaged in by those involved in this investigation and to determine whether those charged with the public trust have acted maliciously by intentionally leaking sealed materials in violation of state policy.”

Kurt R. Bauer, president of the nonprofit Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, said in a statement that, with the U.S. Supreme Court's denial of review, prosecutors pursuing the John Doe probe had been “rejected at every step of the legal process and justice has prevailed.”

“The First Amendment remains a vital part of our democracy in Wisconsin and our nation and people shouldn't face jail time for speaking out on issues,” Bauer said. “Businesses need to have the right to stand up to the government to tell the people about how taxes and regulations affect the daily lives of our citizens. WMC has taken a strong stand on free speech rights for our members and all businesses and will continue to exercise our free speech rights without government harassment in the future.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at kdoyle@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

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