John Doe’s ghost may yet return to haunt candidates

Will a federal judge’s error affect Gov. Scott Walker’s presidential hopes?

Earlier this month U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa issued a preliminary injunction to stop a John Doe investigation into the 2012 recall-election activities of Walker and his conservative allies. Legal questions about the John Doe also are bubbling their way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Randa’s rulings were startling on two counts. First, it was a federal judge halting a local investigation. But the “wow!” factor came from Randa’s order to local investigators to destroy the evidence they had collected.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago quickly intervened and said Randa had overstepped his authority in ordering the destruction of evidence. Within 24 hours Randa, who was appointed by President H.W. Bush, conceded the Appeals Court was correct.

In February, the Wisconsin Club for Growth – a group that supports Walker – sued in federal court saying the John Doe investigation violated its free speech rights. The case ended up in Randa’s courtroom.

Randa began issuing rulings favorable to the Club for Growth including limiting the investigation to narrow corruption ques- tions. Randa has continued in that vein, finding that appeals of his earlier rulings were frivolous. But nothing compared with the latest rulings. Former Milwaukee District Attorney E. Michael McCann said Randa’s ruling against local prosecutors will have national implications.

The apparent target of the John Doe investigation is R.J. Johnson who has been a campaign strategist for Walker and an adviser to the Wisconsin Club for Growth. Johnson also is a former executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin. Walker said closing the investigation would be good for the people of Wisconsin. He said closing the probe means “we can just move on.”

That sounded like a muted victory statement by the governor.

Randa’s ruling to effectively close the investigation is likely to end up in the federal appeals court and then the U.S. Supreme Court. Whether a federal judge can halt a local investigation deserves judicial attention.

That means the recall election questions probably won’t be answered before November’s election in which Walker is seeking a second term. But they may linger into the early days of the 2016 presidential election.

Walker’s top credentials with national Republicans include his anti-union efforts against public employee unions and winning the recall election. Republican leaders may have to ponder what evidence Randa wanted local prosecutors to destroy.

Is there something in that evidence that could take the shine off Walker’s 2012 recall election victory? Will that uncertainty dampen talk about Walker being on the national ticket?

A John Doe is an investigation overseen by judges that allow prosecutors to produce documents and give testimony. The prosecutors are barred from talking about the investigation, but the Wisconsin Club for Growth has discussed the probe on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.

Another odd development in the case was spelled out by the Wisconsin State Journal as Randa’s latest rulings came down. It noted that one of Randa’s assistants is married to a lawyer for Walker’s campaign.

The attorney, Steven Biskupic, said he has not appeared before Randa during the time his wife has been on the judge’s staff.

But that may not silence conspiracy buffs.

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