Over a period of less than 48 hours, a Wisconsin special prosecutor's probe into alleged campaign finance improprieties by Gov. Scott Walker and outside conservative groups has been alive, then dead, then alive again and then dead once more.
The latest twists came late Wednesday when a federal appeals court stayed a judge's ruling Tuesday ordering the probe shut down. Then on Thursday, the judge issued a ruling in a related case which effectively nullified the court's stay. That means that the probe is still under order to shut down, though the legal wrangling presumably isn't over.
On Tuesday, District Court Judge Rudolph Randa ruled that prosecutors had not shown there was any "quid pro quo" between Walker and the conservatives, including the Club for Growth. Without that, the probe was an unconstitutional infringement on the groups' free speech rights.
He issued a sweeping order calling not only for the probe to be closed but for evidence to be returned to the defendants and the prosecutors' notes to be destroyed. He said any effort to revive the probe would result in contempt order.
The prosecutors appealed the ruling, and the following day the appeals court agreed, saying the judge could not order the closure of the case because there was still an unresolved earlier appeal from the prosecutors. They ordered the notes to be preserved and said the judge's ruling could only go into effect if the unresolved appeal was declared frivolous.
Randa did exactly that on Thursday, ruling that prosecutors' appeal was indeed frivolous and putting his Tuesday ruling back into effect. That second case involved whether the prosecutors were immune from being sued by the Club for Growth.
"We are confident that this injunction will remain in place because, as Judge Randa found, the 'John Doe' probe is an abuse of government power to target private citizens for exercising their free speech rights," said David Rivkin, attorney for the Wisconsin Club for Growth.
This is the second of two "John Doe" probes that have dogged Walker since becoming governor in 2011. The probes are so named because they operate under a special state law requires defendants to produce documents but forbids them from talking publicly about them.
The first one was begun in 2010 when Walker was Milwaukee County executive. It resulted in the conviction of three staffers but closed in March 2013 without ever charging Walker himself. It was Walker's office that first alerted the prosecutors to the case, which involved improprieties by some staffers involving a fund for veterans.
The second, begun in 2012, involved alleged illegal coordination between Walker's election campaign and the conservative groups. Randa harshly rebuked the prosecutors, saying they could show no illegal or corrupt activities under current federal law.
The ads cited by prosecutors "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," the judge said.
For more on the John Doe probes, see Phil Klein's "Liberals have bubkes on Scott Walker" and my own "The journos and the Scott Walker indictment that wasn't."