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Changes to John Doe law clear Assembly panel

A legislative committee gave its approval Thursday to a Republican-backed bill that would prevent most so-called John Doe proceedings from lasting longer than 6 months, as well as making various other changes to the much-debated law.

Wisconsin is the only state that conducts John Doe proceedings, which are basically secret investigations that present an alternative to standard grand-jury proceedings.

Assembly Bill 68, debated by the state Assembly’s Committee on Judiciary on Wednesday, would make a series of changes to the John Doe law, including preventing the proceedings from lasting more than 6 months unless a panel of chief judges were to vote that there was good cause to extend the investigation. Among other changes, reserve judges would no longer be allowed to preside over John Doe, and the costs of the proceedings would be made public.

The bill also would tighten the limits the John Doe law sets on what types of crimes prosecutors can conduct the secret investigations.

The Assembly Committee on Judiciary voted 5-3 to recommend passage of the bill at Thursday’s executive session. All the support came from Republicans and the opposition from Democrats.

Before the vote, committee members debated the bill and several amendments put forward by Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee. One called for extending the time prosecutors would have to conduct the proceedings before having to request an extension. Still another would have added political crimes to the types of offenses that could be investigated using John Doe proceedings.

Without amendments of that sort, Goyke argued, politicians will be the exception to a law that will continue to apply to everyone else.

“If this is a valuable tool to prosecute rapists and murderers,” he said, “then it is just as valuable to prosecute us.”

All seven amendments failed along party lines.

“I think that Chapter 11 and 12 (of the state criminal statutes) can be handled by a grand jury,” said panel chairman and Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon. “I don’t think politicians should have any secrecy granted to them through the John Doe proceedings.”

Various Republican sponsors of the bills that are being considered by the Senate and Assembly — including the main author, state Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst — reiterated Thursday that the proposal stems in large part from a sense that the state’s John Doe proceedings were misused in two recent investigations led by the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office.

The first of those probes, which mainly looked at whether violations of election laws had occurred in the Milwaukee County Executive’s office when now-Gov. Scott Walker was in charge there, led to the conviction of six of his former associates on criminal charges.

About Erika Strebel, [email protected]

Erika Strebel is the law beat reporter for the Wisconsin Law Journal and a law school student at UW-Madison. She can be reached at 414-225-1825.

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