The Corner

Wisconsin’s Shame: Legislature Finally Acts to End ‘John Doe’ Abuse

At long last, the Wisconsin legislature has enacted much-needed “John Doe” reform. The reforms are designed to end any further abuse of a law that empowered partisan prosecutors to launch years-long, secret criminal probes of First Amendment-protected activity, complete with pre-dawn raids of conservative activists’ homes and onerous gag orders that prevented them from defending themselves and repairing their tarnished public reputations.

Despite hyperbolic Democratic rhetoric to the contrary, John Doe reform doesn’t limit the ability of prosecutors to investigate political crimes and other non-violent offenses, it merely prevents them from doing so secretly and with a blank check:

The legislation would allow prosecutors to use the John Doe law for the most serious felonies, as well as lesser crimes of a violent nature. That means they could not use it to look into allegations of bribing public officials, using elected office for personal gain and corruptly influencing legislation.

In addition, authorities could not use it to look into crimes such as identity theft, mortgage fraud, dealing small amounts of heroin and cocaine, and theft reaching into the millions of dollars.

For crimes that could be investigated, judges could no longer issue secrecy orders applying to targets and witnesses. Prosecutors could still be ordered to remain quiet about the probes, however.

If Walker signs the law, it will have immediate positive effect on current John Doe victims:

It would lift past secrecy orders that have been issued for targets and witnesses. That would free up Walker and conservative activists to speak freely about the investigation of them, but prosecutors would be constrained from countering their comments unless a judge released the prosecutors from the secrecy order.

In other words, prosecutors would be forced to live under the rules that typically apply to criminal investigations, where private citizens enjoy the right to speak freely about their plight, but agents of the government are bound by grand jury secrecy rules.

While the legislature has acted to stop future abuse and to lift the veil of secrecy over current John Doe investigations, for the actual victims of the pre-dawn raids, who’ve suffered through years of fear and legal uncertainty, the legislation is, quite simply, too late. They’re left picking up the pieces, struggling to get justice from a court system governed by legal doctrines that offer even corrupt prosecutors considerable protection from liability and accountability. 

Just as discouraging, Wisconsin Democrats were united in their opposition to reform, apparently hoping to repeat the entire cycle of pre-dawn raids and open-ended investigations with other, more vulnerable targets. How indifferent were Democrats to the rights of their fellow citizens? This indifferent:

Cry me a river if you’re a criminal suspect and you don’t like a search warrant being executed . . . Boo, hoo, hoo.

That’s Democratic representative Chris Danou expressing his heartfelt disregard for his fellow citizens, for a constitutional system that presumes innocence (even “suspects” should suffer), and for the most basic requirements of transparency and accountability. 

Over to you Governor Walker. Defend the Constitution, and sign the bill.

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