Year in Review: Partisan Supreme Court ends John Doe II probe with a whimper

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

Republican-backed conservatives dominate Wisconsin’s Supreme Court and, during 2015, they handed several major legal victories to Scott Walker, who seemed undaunted by the stench of politics attached to the decisions.

The biggest was John Doe II, a case brought by the Koch-backed Club for Growth and the big business-backed Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. They claimed the investigation into the campaign coordination of their PACs with Scott Walker’s re-election effort violated their freedom of speech, even though the state had a law prohibiting such activities.

The court’s right-wing majority not only ruled for the PACs, which are the same dark money groups that donated big bucks to their judicial campaigns, but also overturned the state’s election law in order to accommodate those donors. Now it’s legal in Wisconsin for PACs, whose donors are anonymous, to coordinate their advertising strategies with candidates’ campaigns, so long as PAC advertising doesn’t overtly name a candidate to vote for or against.

After the ruling, the court’s GOP majority ordered all the evidence compiled in the case to be destroyed.

Prosecutor Francis Schmitz, a Republican and a Walker donor, went back to the bench saying he had evidence Walker’s 2014 campaign did indeed coordinate with PACs on precisely the kind of advertising the court said remained illegal. The justices said it was too late for that now. Then they fired him. 

The Legislature’s Republican leadership amplified the furor over this extraordinary case by outlawing John Doe investigations of elected officials, demolishing the Government Accountability Board — a nonpartisan watchdog group that provided information to prosecutors — and vastly increasing campaign contribution limits.

The Wisconsin GOP, which gerrymandered the electoral map in 2011 so that it cannot lose, either plans to remain in power forever or believes that Democrats, if they ever regain power, would emmploy the unethical tactics that the GOP has used.

That’s a grave error. Just ask the Republicans in Congress who gave president George W. Bush extraordinary executive powers. Now that Democrat Barack Obama is using them, the GOP is branding him a fascist.

Partisan court antics continue

Next up for the court is an election to replace conservative Justice Patrick Crooks, who died suddenly in the fall. Walker handed the position to Rebecca Bradley, a fervently anti-choice donor to the governor who’s been a judge for four years. The governor appointed Bradley to both the judicial positions she’d held in her meteoric rise to the top of Wisconsin justice.

Bradley was so confident Walker would appoint her that she registered the domain name “justicerebeccabradley.com” before the deadline for applying for the vacancy.

Bradley now has the advantage of running as an incumbent. She’s also backed by the Republican Party and the same moneyed groups as her conservative colleagues on the bench. They’re expected to fight to the last million to keep the court — Bradley’s loss would leave the court split.

Her two competitors are far more experienced justices and neither is considered a conservative. One opponent is 4th District Appeals Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg, who came to fame for very nearly beating anger-challenged Judge David Prosser in 2011. In fact, she was declared the winner before Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus mysteriously found thousands of votes for Prosser that she’d somehow misplaced. The other leading challenger is popular Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Joe Donald.

A Feb. 16 primary will narrow the field to two candidates for the April 5 general election.