A bill that would alter the scope and implementation of John Doe investigations in Wisconsin was set to be approved by both chambers of the Wisconsin Legislature Tuesday.
But as debate neared an end in the Senate, Democrats objected to holding a final debate and vote on the bill, meaning the chamber would not be able to revisit it until after midnight. The Senate plans to return at 12:01 a.m.
Debate in the Assembly was scheduled to end at about 6 p.m.
The proposal would limit the scope of crimes that can be investigated in a John Doe probe to the most severe felonies and some violent crimes, meaning campaign finance and ethics violations could no longer be subject to a John Doe. Prosecutors have used John Doe provisions to investigate Gov. Scott Walker's campaign twice.
Democrats say the changes will serve as a "Corrupt Politicians Protection Act," but Republicans say the bill will protect people from having their constitutional rights impeded by prosecutors with a political agenda. They accused Democrats of engaging in hyperbole and using "tired talking points."
"This is not creating a special set of circumstances for anyone in Wisconsin, it’s making us equal to the rest of the country," Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, told reporters.
The Senate and Assembly, both with Republican majorities, debated the bills Tuesday afternoon with votes planned for the evening. A spokeswoman for Gov. Scott Walker said he will "review and evaluate" the legislation when it reaches his desk.
Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said the governor "supports common-sense reforms that protect free speech and ensure transparency and accountability in investigative practices."
"The whole purpose of this bill is to make sure we’re protecting constitutional liberties and making sure ... we are being fair and doing what is on par across the country in how we prosecute crimes," bill author Rep. David Craig, R-Big Bend, told reporters.
The bill's authors — Craig and Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst — say it's designed to provide additional layers of accountability and transparency to a process they say has been abused.
In a 4-2 ruling issued July 16, the state Supreme Court ordered an end to a John Doe investigation into coordination between Walker's campaign and conservative groups that supported him during his 2012 recall election.
The investigation into suspected illegal coordination between Walker's recall campaign and conservative issue advocacy groups, launched by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm in 2012, was put on hold more than a year ago. In its ruling, the court said outlawing such coordination is "unconstitutionally overbroad and vague under the First Amendment."
A prior John Doe investigation, also launched by Chisholm, resulted in convictions for six Walker associates during his time as Milwaukee County executive.
Supporters of the bill have expressed outrage at the way search warrants were executed in the recent John Doe investigations, arguing that prosecutors had too much power. But critics argue the legislation would place elected officials in a class of their own.
"The John Doe, if it’s good for some, it’s good for all. And if it’s not good for some, then it’s not good for all," said Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, arguing that political crimes should not be removed from the scope of the law.
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said the bill marks "the end of clean, open and transparent government in Wisconsin."
The state's John Doe law dates back to Wisconsin's days as a territory and is unique to the state. It allows a prosecutor, under supervision of a judge, to investigate whether a crime has been committed and, if so, who committed it. The prosecutor can compel people to testify and turn over documents.
John Doe investigations are often conducted in secret. Both witnesses and targets are prevented from talking about the investigation with anyone but their attorney.
This bill would limit the secrecy aspect of the law, allowing secrecy orders to be placed only on judges and prosecutors. It would also limit the length of investigations to six months. A probe could be extended for additional six-month periods, with no cap on the number of extensions, provided a majority of 10 judicial administrative district chief judges find good cause.
Craig pushed back on Tuesday against the "Democratic talking points" that his bill would exempt politicians from John Doe investigations. It's true that elected officials could still be investigated using the John Doe process, but not for political crimes.
Democrats argued that removing political crimes from the John Doe scope gives the impression that those crimes are not serious. Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, said John Doe investigations are "functionally the best way" to investigate cases of corruption, because witnesses can be ordered not to communicate with each other.
On Wednesday, the Assembly is set to take up two more contentious proposals: one that would reshape the state's campaign finance laws and one that would split the state Government Accountability Board into two agencies run by partisan appointees.