Before an appeals court put the ruling on hold Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa ordered prosecutors to halt their investigation, return all property seized and destroy all copies of information obtained in the probe. The judge acknowledged conservative groups aligned with Walker and other Republicans were trying to skirt campaign finance laws, but said he saw nothing wrong with that because their activities were protected by the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.
"The plaintiffs have found a way to circumvent campaign finance laws, and that circumvention should not and cannot be condemned or restricted," Randa wrote in his Tuesday decision.
An appeals court on Wednesday said Randa should not have issued the order without first deciding another issue in the case. Prosecutors leading the secret probe said if his decision stands, it would allow independent groups that don't have to disclose their donors to collaborate with candidates who do. Candidates would then have access to vast amounts of money without voters ever knowing the source.
"It just takes us one step further to a Wild West world of campaigns where unlimited contributions, corporate or individual, can be given at any time or in any way," Patrick Guarasci, a Democratic consultant and fundraiser. "There will be a temptation for people to move forward in this gray area until they are pulled back."
The decision is just the latest in a string of hot-button rulings Randa has issued since President George H.W. Bush appointed him to the bench in Milwaukee in 1992. Other decisions struck down the Freedom to Clinics Entrances Act, which prohibited people from blocking abortion clinic entrances; eliminated Wisconsin's minimum markup on gasoline, which was meant to prevent stations from undercutting and driving competitors out of business; and declared more than $50 million off-limits to victims of clergy sexual abuse who were suing the Milwaukee archdiocese.
The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago did not comment on the substance of Randa's latest ruling when it issued its hold Wednesday. The court, which is also considering an appeal in the archdiocese case, has clashed with Randa before. Its judges reinstated the gas markup law and, in another case, admonished Randa for likening a drug dealer's claims that he loved his family to Adolf Hitler's love for his dog.
The appeals court gave attorneys a July 30 deadline for filing briefs in the so-called John Doe case. At issue is a civil lawsuit filed by Wisconsin Club for Growth, which says the secret probe violates its civil rights.
Sam Leib, the attorney representing the special prosecutor leading the probe, said he hoped Randa's decision would eventually be overturned.
"If sustained, this ruling is the death of campaign finance law as we know it in the State of Wisconsin and across the nation," said Leib, who noted the special prosecutor also was a Republican. "It will now be possible for a political candidate to personally conduct a campaign - soup to nuts - without disclosing a single campaign contribution."
Under current law, political action committees that expressly advocate for or against a candidate are subject to campaign finance limits and can't coordinate with the candidate. Other groups that advocate for or against specific issues but not candidates do not have to disclose their donors or how much they spend.
Reid Magney, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board which oversees campaign finance laws in the state, declined to comment on the ruling.
Janine Geske, a Marquette University law professor and former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice who has known Randa for years, described him as a judicial conservative who typically keeps his rulings very narrow. The breadth of the John Doe rule surprised her.
"His decisions are very tight, normally," Geske said. "To me it's obviously a far-reaching decision and that's not consistent generally with how he approaches cases."
Associated Press writer M.L. Johnson in Milwaukee contributed to this report in Milwaukee.