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Judge Randa Goes Rogue on John Doe Ruling

Conservative judge gives a radical interpretation of campaign finance laws

May. 14, 2014
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Last week, U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa released an unprecedented ruling—literally.

He decided that the criminal investigation into alleged crimes committed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker and allied conservative groups should be halted and all evidence thus far collected to be destroyed.

The case was brought by the Wisconsin Club for Growth and its executive director, conservative activist Eric O’Keefe. The group spent more than $9 million on the 2011 and 2012 recalls against Walker and assorted elected officials. They’re suing Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm and others involved in the investigation of Walker and more than two dozen national and state conservative groups the governor allegedly coordinated with.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his decision. Then Randa responded, claiming that the prosecutors’ appeal was “frivolous” and at one point “the height of frivolousness.”

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has been rolling back campaign finance regulations, Randa’s decision shocked a few campaign finance observers, who say that he is overturning decades of settled federal and state law that forces a separation between candidates for elected office and independent, unregulated groups that run “issue ads,” ads that don’t explicitly state support for or against a candidate but very definitely imply it.

“The idea that these groups are somehow at liberty to coordinate with candidates is an invention of Judge Randa’s,” said Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. 

Randa seemed to applaud the Wisconsin Club for Growth’s ability to “circumvent” campaign finance laws and hailed their activities as promoting free speech.

That struck Brendan Fischer, staff counsel for the Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy, as odd. Randa is a member of the Federalist Society, which rails against “activist judges” who go beyond precedent-setting decisions to create new law.

“This is clearly an activist decision,” Fischer said. “He reversed years of Wisconsin state court precedent and injected his own interpretation into Wisconsin law and he did it while state court proceedings were ongoing. So there was nothing conservative about his decision.”


More Corruption Will Result

Randa’s decision leans heavily on recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have chipped away at campaign finances regulations, Citizens United and the recently decided McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. Yet neither one of those cases has anything to do with the issue central to this John Doe investigation—coordination between a campaign and allegedly independent, unregulated groups that spend millions on ads but don’t have to disclose the source of their funding—and Randa seemed to ignore rulings that do speak to it.

On the federal level, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003 ruled that the McCain-Feingold law’s ban on coordination was constitutional. And former state Supreme Court Justice Jon Wilcox was found to have illegally coordinated with the Wisconsin Coalition for Voter Participation, which had sent out $135,000 worth of postcards on his behalf during his 1997 campaign. His campaign was fined $60,000, and his campaign manager, Mark Block, was fined $15,000 and ordered to stay away from campaigns for three years. Block went on to become a Wisconsin leader of the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity.

Instead of relying on those cases to form his decision, Randa found that the prosecutors’ objection to Walker more or less embedding the Wisconsin Club for Growth’s R.J. Johnson in his campaign was nothing troubling. Randa even went so far as to claim that corruption couldn’t exist if candidates and dark-money groups were in cahoots if they shared a similar philosophy.

Wisconsin Democracy Campaign’s McCabe said that kind of logic would only breed more corruption and fewer independent-minded candidates.

“If this argument prevails, then the only candidates who can run for office are the ones who are aligned with and will do the bidding of the major special-interest groups,” McCabe said.


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