Federal Appeals Court Overturns Ruling That Halted John Doe Probe

Court Sends Legal Challenge Back to Lower Court, With Instructions To Dismiss Case

The Flamingo sculpture outside the Dirksen Federal Building in Chicago, which houses the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. Photo: Matt Watts (CC-BY-SA).

A federal appeals court ruled on Wednesday that it will allow a secret state investigation into possible illegal campaign coordination between Gov. Scott Walker and conservative groups to continue.

The ruling lifted an injunction on the “John Doe” investigation, while also effectively dismissing a lawsuit against the prosecutors behind it by declaring that the matter was one for the state court system — a ruling that aligned with the judges’ line of questioning during oral arguments in the case.

Though the injunction has been lifted, the investigation will remain on hold after a retired state judge overseeing the probe, Gregory Peterson, ruled earlier this year that there was not enough evidence in the investigation to support the contention that anything illegal had happened during the 2011 and 2012 recall elections. That judge’s ruling has been appealed to the state Supreme Court.

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The 14-page ruling from the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, written by Judge Frank Easterbrook, found that U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa was wrong to impose an injunction on the investigation in the first place. Easterbrook noted that issuing federal injunctions in state court matters is against the law, except under special circumstances.

“The issuance of injunctive relief … is hard to justify in light of the Anti‑Injunction Act, and the district court did not try to do so,” wrote Easterbrook.

The court also overturned Randa’s ruling that prosectutors leading the investigation had no immunity from lawsuits seeking damages. It ultimately remanded the case back to the district court, with instructions to dismiss it.

The lawsuit had been filed by one of the conservative groups under investigation, Wisconsin Club for Growth, which claimed that its First Amendment rights were being violated by the probe.

Walker said he’s not bothered by the new appellate ruling, since Peterson’s ruling has, for now, halted the case regardless.

“So that doesn’t alter the status where we’re at,” said Walker. “It’s something that a respected judge here in the state of Wisconsin at the state level, who has no political ties to me or anyone I’m affiliated with, said should not go forward.

Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign said in the wake of the ruling that no matter what happens to the investigation, it’s important for the public “get as much information as possible about who is behind all this election campaigning.

He said the John Doe case isn’t just about Walker, but about whether any candidates can do what is alleged in the investigation and steer donations to outside political groups. McCabe calls that process “money-laundering.

Read the federal appellate court ruling below: