- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 7, 2014

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - A federal court ruling that halted an investigation into Gov. Scott Walker’s recall campaign and other conservative groups has wide-ranging implications. Here are five things to know about the ruling:



U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa ruled that a secret investigation into possible illegal coordination between the governor’s 2012 recall campaign and conservative groups supporting him was a breach of free-speech rights. He also ordered prosecutors to return all property seized in the investigation and to destroy all copies of information obtained in the probe. The judge, who was appointed by George H.W. Bush, issued the ruling in a lawsuit filed by Wisconsin Club for Growth, a conservative group that said the so-called John Doe investigation amounted to harassment.


Prosecutors leading the investigation immediately appealed Randa’s decision, and the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago put his decision on hold late Wednesday. The appeals court said Randa should not have halted the investigation while he was still considering prosecutors’ appeal of his earlier decision that they were not immune from being sued. The court will decide later if Randa’s decision was valid.


Prosecutors claim Wisconsin Club for Growth was working as a subcommittee for Walker’s campaign and therefore had to report its spending and abide by fundraising limits. But Randa said the Club’s activities counted as issue advocacy, which the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled is protected free speech and not subject to regulation. Experts say that if his decision stands it could reverse current campaign finance laws by allowing independent groups that don’t disclose donors to work in conjunction with candidates.


Republican allies of Gov. Scott Walker said Randa’s ruling vindicated their belief that the investigation was unjustified and more about politics than fact finding; GOP strategist Mark Graul called the probe a “witch hunt.” But state Democratic Party chairman Mike Tate said the ruling wasn’t an exoneration of Walker, just a way to evade campaign finance laws. Tate and other Walker opponents hope the ruling would be overturned on appeal.


Three other lawsuits pending in state court are connected to the secret investigation, which was allowed under a state law that grants prosecutors power to compel people to testify and produce documents in secret. The special prosecutor leading the investigation, Francis Schmitz, has asked an appeals court to reverse a judge’s decision in one lawsuit to quash subpoenas in the case. A second lawsuit involves two unnamed parties asking the Wisconsin Supreme Court to challenge the investigation, and three other unnamed parties argue that Peterson lacks authority to run such a probe.

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