Deb Jordahl had long been passionate about the First Amendment.
After all, political speech has been the highly successful conservative strategist’s livelihood for more than 25 years.
But she never knew just how critical her voice was until she lost it in Wisconsin’s infamous John Doe investigation.
The sun had yet to rise when deputies carrying warrants pounded on Mrs. Jordahl’s front door in a quiet suburb of Madison.
Armed law enforcement officers, led by Milwaukee County District Attorney investigator Anna Linden, proceeded to root through the home. They hauled out computers, smartphones, paper records and an array of “evidence” that had nothing to do with the investigation, private possessions not listed on the sweeping warrants.
For several hours, Mrs. Jordahl, her husband, and their teenage children were confined to the home’s family room, guarded by a Dane County deputy.
“At one point early on, I started to get up from the sofa,” Mrs. Jordahl told Wisconsin Watchdog. “I told the deputy who was guarding us that I wanted to call my lawyer. She backed me down on the sofa and told me I could not call anyone.”
“I felt completely helpless in my own home.”
Mrs. Jordahl has had plenty of helpless feelings since the coordinated John Doe raids of Oct. 3, 2013, when John Doe investigators served warrants on the homes and offices of several targets. But maybe nothing compares to watching her 15-year-old daughter, sitting in her pajamas on the living room couch, crying, as a deputy told her she could tell none of her friends at school about that morning.
The politically driven probe, launched by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm four years ago this month, targeted 29 right-of-center groups and scores of conservatives like Mrs. Jordahl. In July 2015, the Wisconsin Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional, and ordered it shut down.
Mr. Chisholm, a highly partisan Democrat, and his assistants worked with the now-defunct state Government Accountability Board in pursuing a campaign finance probe the court’s ruling described as a “perfect storm of wrongs” perpetrated against people who did nothing wrong.
The probe’s ultimate goal, critics say, was to bring down Republican Gov. Scott Walker, the left’s public enemy No. 1, and his limited-government reforms. Along the way, prosecutors hoped to knock out conservative organizations that had successfully advocated for legislation like Act 10, which effectively ended public-sector collective bargaining in Wisconsin.
Targets claim the John Doe had a chilling effect on conservative speech in Wisconsin for years, silencing right-of-center players who typically played active rolls in election-year advertising.
Mr. Chisholm, who declined comment, has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the state court’s ruling. His attorneys say the prosecutor and his assistants did nothing wrong, even though multiple courts ordered investigators to stop.
Mrs. Jordahl fought back. She and several other conservative targets challenged the investigation and initially won.
In January 2014, Judge Gregory Peterson, who had taken over after the previous John Doe judge suddenly recused herself, ruled prosecutors had no probable cause to support their theory of illegal coordination between Mr. Walker’s campaign and the conservative groups. The theory was that issue advocacy, political messages that do not directly support or oppose candidates, can be transformed into express advocacy messages, which do endorse or oppose.
The state Supreme Court said it doesn’t matter whether campaigns and issue groups associate with one another. The constitution doesn’t prohibit that, and it cannot impede issue advocacy.
Still, for years, Mrs. Jordahl and her fellow targets were forced into silence by a gag order under Wisconsin’s archaic John Doe law that prohibited them from speaking publicly about any aspect of the investigation. Doing so could land them in jail on contempt charges and slap them with fines.
Judge Frank Easterbrook of the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals once called the secrecy orders “screamingly unconstitutional.” Indeed, the prosecutors’ tactics are being tested in federal civil rights and privacy lawsuits.
Mrs. Jordahl has faced a roller-coaster ride of emotions. Just as she saw her faith in the judicial system restored, another court in another jurisdiction would give the prosecutors a pass or even leak private information that was ordered sealed.
“I didn’t appreciate how fragile our Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were until prosecutors raided our home and seized our private property because of our political ideology. Then they threatened to throw us in jail if we told anyone about it,” she said.
Mrs. Jordahl is still waiting for justice. But she isn’t standing idly by, becoming a vocal critic of law enforcement abuses wherever they occur.
“Unfortunately our situation is not unique,” she said. “Government officials routinely violate the rights of people who, unlike us, don’t have the means to fight back. And nobody seems to care.”
“It’s time for conservative leaders who like to wax poetic about the Constitution to realize there’s more to it than the Second and Tenth Amendments,” she added.
That philosophy makes Deb Jordahl a Washington Times Unsung Hero.
M.D. Kittle is a reporter and Wisconsin bureau chief for Watchdog.org.