EDITORIAL: Payback time in Wisconsin

Democrats use power of the state in a vendetta against Gov. Scott Walker

Some liberals think it’s payback time in Wisconsin. Conservatives have made substantial inroads in traditionally blue states, notably with the election and retention of Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, in Wisconsin. Democrats think this is unacceptable, and they’re using a prosecutor and his power and authority to deliver the message.

Three years ago, the Milwaukee County district attorney opened an unusual legal process known as a “John Doe” investigation, targeting a who’s who of prominent Republicans and conservatives in Wisconsin, looking for violations of campaign-finance law. Under this rarely used procedure, groups such as Americans for Prosperity and the Club for Growth have been forced to turn over hundreds of thousands of emails and confidential documents.

What makes the process especially pernicious is that the targeted have no legal way to challenge the subpoenas. They can’t even acknowledge what’s happening. In October, Judge Barbara A. Kluka imposed a gag order, making it a crime for an accused to say he had been ordered to hand over boxes of material dating back three or more years. Such gag orders are questionable enough when used in cases involving the blanket surveillance of the National Security Agency, and doubly outrageous to impose them in a case reeking of payback politics.

The effect is that partisan Democrats in the district attorney’s office — 43 of whom signed the petition to recall Gov. Walker — have the freedom to paint Republicans as criminal suspects since “they’re under investigation.” Any conservative who complains about the treatment or who speaks up in his own defense can be jailed. Democrats get to read through the plans and goals of their opponents, and taxpayers are paying for it. This is meant to tell national conservative groups to stay out of Wisconsin lest they get pulled into the dragnet.

Wisconsin has traditionally been seen as a union-friendly state. Gov. Scott Walker shocked the political establishment when, after his election in 2010, he opened sweeping reforms to address a $3.6 billion budget deficit, one of the largest deficits among the states. Mr. Walker loosened the public-sector unions’ grip on Wisconsin by enabling state employees to opt out of their union membership. A number of unions subsequently folded because their members quit their unions, thinking they’re better off keeping all of their paychecks for themselves and their families.

Unions and liberal groups ranging from the AFL-CIO to Organizing for America, President Obama’s campaign organization, spent nearly $60 million trying to recall the governor. The conservatives who rallied to Mr. Walker’s defense are now targeted for investigation. Unions and liberal political groups are not.

Voters rejected the recall, and the governor’s reforms paid dividends. The state now has a budget surplus, and a recent poll suggests Mr. Walker would defeat all challengers in a re-election bid next year. He’s even mentioned as a Republican candidate for president in 2016. The thought of Mr. Walker taking his reforms to a national audience sends shivers down the spine of Democrats in Wisconsin.

They can’t beat Mr. Walker on policy or at the polls, but a partisan prosecutor doesn’t need a legitimate case to take an incumbent down. Investigations, often deliberately stalled to make the pain exquisite, can drag on for years. This is power that no district attorney, of whatever party, should have. Reform of prosecutorial power is long overdue.

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