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View from around the state: Judge’s John Doe statements endorse twisted campaign system

— From the Appleton Post-Crescent

U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa (AP Photo/Courtesy of U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin)

U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa (AP Photo/Courtesy of U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin)

A federal judge’s order to stop a John Doe investigation into whether some conservative organizations illegally coordinated campaign financing with Gov. Scott Walker’s recall election campaign in 2011 and 2012 has puzzled some in the legal community.

They wonder how a judge can stop an investigation and, further, how a federal judge can stop a state and multi-county investigation.

U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa’s order last week has put at least a temporary halt on the investigation by prosecutors into Wisconsin Club for Growth and other organizations after Club for Growth sued in federal court.

There will be many more court battles over this case until it’s finally decided, but we’re concerned by what Randa had to say in issuing his decision.

The organizations involved in the case used issue ads — not directly advocating for voting for or against a candidate, but advocating for a particular issue. It’s basically a campaign ad in disguise, and it lets the organizations avoid the requirement to disclose their contributors.

Randa wrote that Wisconsin Club for Growth and its director who filed suit, Eric O’Keefe, “obviously agree with Governor Walker’s policies, but coordinated ads in favor of those policies carry no risk of corruption because the Club’s interests are already aligned with Walker and other conservative politicians. Such ads are meant to educate the electorate, not curry favor with corruptible candidates.”

It’s a chicken-or-egg argument. Which came first? Did the organization’s views first align with the candidate’s? Or did the candidate’s views first align with the organization’s? In reality, both are entwined in the same corruptible campaign-finance system.

To say the ads, even if coordinated, carry no risk of corruption is at best naive and more likely ludicrous. Likewise is the notion that issue ads are intended to “educate the electorate.”

And Randa saying that Club for Growth “found a way to circumvent campaign finance laws” but that it should be “recognized as promoting political speech” is disturbing in its disregard for those laws.

As we said, more court decisions eventually will sort out whether the investigation can proceed. But the statements this particular judge made in ordering his decision show either a lack of understanding about how our campaign system really operates — or, even worse, an endorsement of it.

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