CHICAGO (CN) – The 7th Circuit will allow Wisconsin prosecutors to keep investigating Gov. Scott Walker’s 2012 recall election campaign for finance law violations.
The investigation has included armed raids on homes to collect evidence. It led to a lawsuit by the Wisconsin Club for Growth, one of the groups targeted. Its founder, Eric O’Keefe, is a self-described political activist with a history of fighting for libertarian causes.
U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa in Wisconsin preliminarily enjoined the investigation in June, ruling that “the plaintiffs have been shut out of the political process merely by association with conservative politicians. This cannot square with the First Amendment and what it was meant to protect.”
But the 7th circuit heard oral arguments on Sept. 9 and came down squarely in Wisconsin’s favor Wednesday.
Judge Frank Easterbrook acknowledged Wisconsin’s need to look into improper coordination between the plaintiffs and the Walker campaign.
Although the First Amendment protects truly independent expenditures for political speech, the government is entitled to regulate coordination between campaigns and purportedly independent groups,” Easterbrook wrote.
He continued: “If campaigns tell contributors to divert money to groups that have agreed to do the campaigns’ bidding, contribution limits become porous,” and disclosure requirements become “useless.”
The 14-page ruling cites the state’s strong interest to “prevent evasion of contribution limits and ensure the public identification of persons who contribute to politicians’ war chests.”
Though it is out of federal court, the battle may go on: Easterbrook said the plaintiffs can pursue a state lawsuit or simply respond to the proceedings to prove their innocence.
However, a state lawsuit may succeed Wisconsin courts follow Easterbrook’s view: “What we have said shows not only that an injunction was an abuse of discretion but also that all defendants possess qualified immunity from liability in damages. Public officials can be held liable for violating clearly established law, but not for choosing sides on a debatable issue.”
The judge continued: “The Supreme Court has yet to determine what ‘coordination’ means. Uncertainty is a powerful reason to leave this litigation in state court.”
Easterbrook also found for the state on procedural grounds. “The scope given to state litigation is especially great in the realm of criminal investigations and prosecutions,” the judge wrote.
He relied on the Anti-Injunction Act’s clear statement that federal courts usually cannot enjoin state proceedings and that there is no reason to do so here.
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