WI Supreme Court’s Decision Not To Hear Oral Arguments In John Doe Case “Alarming,” Conceals “This Important Litigation From Public View”

By Bruce Vielmetti and Patrick Marley
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (3/27/15)

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Friday it would not hear arguments — in secret or in public — as it considers whether to allow an investigation to continue that has looked into whether Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign illegally worked with conservative groups in recall elections.

“The prospect or oral argument creates severe tension between important and conflicting priorities,” the court wrote, citing the long tradition of open courts and the secrecy of the John Doe.

Instead, the court will decide the matter based on hundreds of pages of briefs that have been filed in the cases, mostly in secret, because the court also rejected a special prosecutor’s argument that the secrecy genie has already largely escaped the bottle.

The investigation has been stalled for more than a year, and the court’s decision is expected to determine whether it can be revived or shut down for good. Its ruling will likely come by this summer, just as the Republican governor ramps up an expected bid for the presidency.

The court also denied the Journal Sentinel’s efforts to intervene in the case. Both decisions were unsigned and released after 5 p.m.

Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson wrote dissenting opinions in each matter.

“The court’s order is long on summarizing the parties’ positions regarding oral argument but short on setting forth the court’s own reasoning for canceling oral argument,” she wrote.

“The court’s failure to provide further justification for its highly unusual decision to cancel oral argument is, in my view, alarming.”

Arguments were slated to be heard April 17 and 20 in what could have been some of the longest arguments before the state’s high court.

Secrecy reigns

Those involved in the cases had been uncertain how to conduct arguments because of the secrecy surrounding the cases. They had suggested the court hold arguments, but not allow the public to attend them. They recommended allowing the public to watch at least part of the proceedings using a delayed tape.

Earlier this month, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel asked to intervene in the cases to argue the public should be able to attend the arguments and review the court documents in the case.

In a lengthy order Friday, the court found that request untimely, noting that the newspaper had not sought to intervene after the Court of Appeals ruled in January 2014 that certain records would remain permanently under seal.

The court said that while the newspaper’s desire to argue that oral arguments be public is now moot, its desire to argue about the process of redacting other documents in the case would “delay by weeks or months” the redactions that are already in progress.

Abrahamson also took issue with the court on decision, saying it “may, unfortunately, signify the court’s intention to dispose of the John Doe cases as a whole in a similarly swift and secretive manner. I cannot join the court in concealing this important litigation from public view.”

Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, a Democrat, launched the probe in 2012 to determine whether Walker’s campaign illegally worked with conservative groups in recall elections in 2011 and 2012. Chisholm was assisted in that probe by two Republican and two Democratic district attorneys from other counties and the state Government Accountability Board, which oversees campaign finance laws.

That investigation was effectively halted more than a year ago, when the judge overseeing it found the activities in question were not illegal. No one has been charged and Walker, his campaign and the conservative groups have said they did nothing wrong.

Much of the otherwise secret probe has become public through media reports and a wave of litigation that resulted in once-sealed documents being filed in state and federal courthouses. Among the information disclosed was Walker’s campaign’s involvement in raising money for the Wisconsin Club for Growth.

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