MADISON, Wis. — Presidential candidate Scott Walker won a major legal victory Thursday when Wisconsin's Supreme Court ended a secret investigation into whether the Republican's gubernatorial campaign illegally coordinated with conservative groups during the 2012 recall election.
No one has been charged in the so-called John Doe probe, Wisconsin's version of a grand jury investigation in which information is tightly controlled, but questions about the investigation have dogged Walker for months.
Barring an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the ruling makes Walker's campaign that much smoother as he courts voters in early primary states.
"Today's ruling confirmed no laws were broken, a ruling that was previously stated by both a state and federal judge," said Walker's spokeswoman AshLee Strong. "It is time to move past this unwarranted investigation that has cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars."
The case centers on political activity conducted by Wisconsin Club for Growth and other conservative organizations during the 2012 recall, which was spurred by Democrats' anger over a Walker-authored law that effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers.
The justices cited free speech in effectively tossing out the case, ruling state election law is overbroad and vague in defining what amounts to "political purposes."
Justice Michael Gableman, part of the court's conservative majority, praised the conservative groups for challenging the investigation.
"It is fortunate, indeed, for every other citizen of this great State who is interested in the protection of fundamental liberties that the special prosecutor chose as his targets innocent citizens who had both the will and the means to fight the unlimited resources of an unjust prosecution," Gableman wrote in the majority opinion.
Prosecutors accused Walker and the groups of illegally coordinating their campaign efforts in violation of state law. They denied wrongdoing.
Gableman wrote that prosecutors alleged the groups and the campaign coordinated on issue advocacy, communications that don't expressly call for a candidate's defeat or victory, and should have reported their spending and abided by fundraising limits.
Regulations governing coordination for political purposes must be limited to express advocacy, that is, advertisements and communications that clearly call on voters to defeat or elect a specific candidate, Gableman wrote. With that limitation in place, Wisconsin's law doesn't prohibit any of the coordination the prosecutors believe was illegal.
"To be clear, this conclusion ends the John Doe investigation because the ... prosecutor's legal theory is unsupported in either reason or law," Gableman wrote. "Consequently, the investigation is closed."
Lead prosecutor Francis Schmitz had no immediate comment, saying he needed time to read the ruling.
Justice Shirley Abrahamson, one of two liberals on the seven-member court, sharply disagreed in a dissent that accused the majority of a faulty interpretation of state law.
"The majority opinion delivers a significant blow to Wisconsin's campaign finance law and to its paramount objectives of 'stimulating vigorous campaigns on a fair and equal basis' and providing for 'a better informed electorate,'" Abrahamson wrote.
Republicans had called the investigation, launched by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, a Democrat, a partisan witch hunt. Wisconsin Club for Growth and its director, Eric O'Keefe, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit last year seeking to halt the probe, arguing the investigation violates their free speech rights. U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa sided with the club but a federal appellate court later tossed out the lawsuit, saying the issue belonged in state courts.
The club and O'Keefe then turned to the state Supreme Court, which is controlled by a four-justice conservative majority.
The court's four conservatives — Gableman, David Prosser, Annette Ziegler and Patience Roggensack — formed the majority in Thursday's ruling. Abrahamson was joined in a separate dissent by swing justice Patrick Crooks. The court's other liberal justice, Ann Walsh Bradley, recused herself because her son works for a law firm involved in the case.
The high court's partisan nature has long been exceptionally public, including a physical confrontation between Prosser and Bradley in 2011 and, just months ago, a bitter transition in leadership as Roggensack took over as chief justice from Abrahamson.
At least three groups named in the probe spent millions in recent years to support the conservative justices in elections, and Schmitz in February asked at least two unnamed justices to recuse themselves to avoid the appearance of impropriety. The justices didn't respond.
Howard Schweber, an associate professor of political science and legal studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said before the ruling that prosecutors could seek review by the U.S. Supreme Court, possibly arguing bias, if they lost.