Thursday, September 25, 2014
The Seventh Circuit this week reversed an earlier district court injunction halting a criminal investigation into coordination between Governor Scott Walker's campaign committee and "independent" groups on issue advocacy. We posted on the injunction here.
Recall that the Milwaukee County District Attorney asked a state court to initiate a "John Doe" criminal investigation into alleged coordination between Walker's campaign committee and "independent" groups on issue advocacy. As part of the investigation, the court issued subpoenas, including one to Eric O'Keefe, who manages the Wisconsin Club for Growth, Inc., one of these "independent" groups. The state court granted O'Keefe's motion to quash. The prosecutor took the issue to the state's higher courts, but, before those courts could rule, O'Keefe filed in federal court, seeking an injunction and monetary damages against the prosecutors. The district court granted the injunction (thus halting the investigation), ruled that the defendants did not enjoy qualified immunity, and ordered the defendants to return or destroy all documents obtained in the investigation.
The Seventh Circuit reversed the injunction and dismissed the case. It held that the Anti-Injunction Act and principles of equity, comity, and federalism prohibit it. The court said that the plaintiffs couldn't show irreparable injury, that they had adequate remedies under state law, and that federal relief was not appropriate. Because the state court judge "concluded that the investigation should end as a matter of state law, because [the prosecutor] lacks evidence that state law has been violated . . . [t]he result is an injunction unnecessary at best, advisory at worst."
The court also took the district judge to task for effectively anticipating a Supreme Court ruling that would allow the kind of coordination alleged here under the First Amendment. That hasn't happened (yet), said the court, and the district judge was wrong to base the injunction on it.
The court said that the district judge was also wrong to deny qualified immunity.
Plaintiffs' claim to the constitutional protection for raising funds to engage in issue advocacy coordinated with a politician's campaign committee has not been established 'beyond debate.' To the contrary, there is a lively debate among judges and academic analysts. . . . No opinion of the Supreme Court, or by any court of appeals, establishes ('clearly' or otherwise) that the First Amendment forbids regulation of coordination between campaign committees and issue-advocacy groups--let alone that the First Amendment forbids even an inquiry into that topic.
Thus, the defendants enjoy qualified immunity.
Finally, the court held that "Wisconsin, not the federal judiciary, should determine whether, and to what extent, documents gathered in a John Doe proceeding are disclosed to the public." The court said that the federal district court "should ensure that sealed documents in the federal record stay sealed, as long as documents containing the same information remain sealed in the state-court record."
This ruling almost surely marks the end of the federal case. Because of the Anti-Injunction Act and the state of First Amendment law on campaign finance, this is not a good candidate for en banc or Supreme Court review.