A lawyer for a former top aide to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said a lawsuit she filed against the Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office was bolstered by the state supreme court Thursday when it ended the office's long-running so-called "John Doe" probe against the governor.
The court's brutal dismissal of the underlying case against Walker, now a 2016 Republican presidential candidate, will bolster the lawsuit's claim that district attorney violated the aide's civil rights.
Cindy Archer, formerly Walker's deputy administration secretary, filed the suit in federal court on July 1. It names District Attorney John Chisholm and four other officials in his office as defendants and says they violated her civil rights by using the John Doe probe as a pretext for a partisan witch hunt — something the state supreme court appeared to agree with.
"The Wisconsin Supreme Court decision vindicates our position all along: from the very beginning, the John Doe never had any basis in law or fact and was little more than a retaliatory dragnet targeting Scott Walker and his allies. The decision closes the door on the abuse of campaign-finance laws in Wisconsin to target people merely because they spoke out on public policy issues. It also opens the door to civil rights lawsuits by the victims to shine a light on the full extent of the abuses and to hold those responsible to account," David Rivkin, Archer's attorney, told the Washington Examiner.
Ilya Shapiro, senior fellow in constitutional studies for the libertarian Cato Institute agreed with Rivkin, noting that the state supreme court ruling legally establishes much of civil rights lawsuit's underlying argument. "The court [that hears the civil rights case] will certainly take judicial notice of what other courts have said," he said.
Shapiro nevertheless noted that these kind of cases charging misconduct by public officials can be difficult to win. Officials are generally immune from prosecution for engaging in their official duties.
"You have to show that someone was acting 'willfully and wantonly' in violation of a person's civil rights," Shapiro said. In other words, not only were they wrong on the law, but that they knew this at the time.
Chisholm, a Democrat, started a special probe of Walker in 2010, initially to investigate financial improprieties by his staff when he was Milwaukee County executive and some former staffers were subsequently convicted of misusing funds. It was Walker's office that first alerted authorities to the misappropriations.
Wisconsin law allows prosecutors to launch criminal probes, known as "John Doe investigations," that allow them to subpoena witnesses and evidence without showing probable cause that a crime was committed. The idea is to determine whether probable cause exists to file charges. The proceedings are meant to be secret and subjects are forbidden from discussing them publicly.
The Walker probe was expanded several times and Archer became one of its targets. Law enforcement officials, including FBI agents, acting under Chisholm's authority, raided her home in 2011. A second John Doe probe, focusing on alleged campaign finance violations by Walker and his conservative allies, was started in 2012.
The following year a judge halted the second probe, saying the prosecutors had not provided any evidence that a crime had been committed. On Thursday, the state supreme court agreed and ordered all activities relating to the case to cease.
"It is utterly clear that the special prosecutor has employed theories of law that do not exist in order to investigate citizens who were wholly innocent of any wrongdoing," Justice Michael Gableman wrote in the majority opinion.
That's pretty close to what Archer's lawsuit charges — that Chisholm used the investigation as a political weapon to embarrass the governor and knew those touched by the probe would be unable to publicly speak in their defense.
"The purpose of these actions was retaliation. Defendant Chisholm informed subordinates in his office that it was his duty to 'stop' Gov. Walker from reforming public-sector unions in Wisconsin," the lawsuit says.
Archer was the key architect of Walker's reforms, which limited collective bargaining to wages only, allowed public-sector workers to opt out of paying union dues and required the unions to hold annual recertification votes or lose state recognition. The changes have resulted in substantial membership loses for the unions.
Charges were never filed against Archer. She was nevertheless forced to step down from her position in Walker's administration due to the probe and was the subject of numerous media reports after the raid implying she was about to be charged with criminal violations. The suit says the investigation derailed her career, strained her finances and she became depressed and suicidal as a consequence.