Matt Pommer: Judges in harmony with protest singers at Wisconsin Capitol

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Matt Pommer
Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Walker administration’s crackdown on Capitol singers is creeping back into the news as judges rule on many of the 783 citations issued to protesters. The news is not good for the administration.

Dane County Judge John Markson threw out 29 tickets given to protesters and offered a sharp rebuke for alterations on two tickets four months after they were issued.

“I cannot ignore any party’s—much less the state’s—altering a document filed with the court so that it is different from the one actually served upon the other party,” he wrote. “That this is wrong requires no explanation.

“It cannot be remedied simply by sending a letter, particularly where the letter misleadingly advises the change made is merely a ‘technical’ one,” he wrote.

An attorney representing some of the singers said Capitol police apparently issued charges under the wrong administrative rule. Citations were altered and the original charge blotted out with whiteout and amended charges added. Many of the changes were not filed in court, to the frustration of court officials.

Those charged in the first two weeks of the Walker administration’s crackdown were charged with conducting a picket, rally, or demonstration without a permit. The amended charge was participating in an unlawful assembly.

Markson noted more than one-third of all contested forfeiture cases in Dane County Court last year involved the Capitol protests.

The Capitol protests stemmed from the 2011 legislation that effectively dismantled public-employee unions in Wisconsin. Massive protest rallies were held in the Capitol over the legislation, attracting national attention.

Gov. Scott Walker survived a recall election in summer of 2012, and the results—along with the anti-union legislation—have propelled him into a possible spot on the Republican national ticket in 2016.

The governor’s political image took negative hits in February with the release of more than 27,000 emails collected by a John Doe probe into activities in his office when he was Milwaukee County executive. That investigation resulted in criminal convictions of six former Walker aides and allies. Walker has refused to answer whether he knew about the secret email system at the heart of the probe.

One media report said the governor’s email file got more than 900 of the messages. Walker has said he doesn’t have time to read the emails, reporting he is busy trying to boost employment in Wisconsin. In 2010 he promised that if elected governor he would add 250,000 jobs in the state.

While he apparently is too busy to read the emails and answer media questions, critics note he has had time to speak to conservative political groups across the nation.

Meanwhile the legal actions stemming from the crackdown on the Capitol singalongs continue to perk. A recent appeals court decision would open the door for lawyers representing the singers to use the discovery process in preparing their cases.

The discovery process would allow them to call witnesses and get documents related to the police crackdown on singing. Lurking in the background is whether state taxpayers might have to pay the legal fees if the defendants prevail. The state has downplayed the cost of continuing to prosecute the citations. A Department of Justice spokesperson has said there has been no added cost because its attorneys are already on the payroll.

The discovery process could provide a behind-the-scenes peek at the administration’s thinking during the height of the protests. The tens of thousands of people who came to the Capitol to protest the union-busting legislation will be paying attention.

Matt Pommer writes this Wisconsin Newspaper Association weekly state government newsletter. He is dean of the state Capitol correspondents, having covered government action in Madison for 36 years. Readers can contact Pommer at mpommer@sbcglobal.net.

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