CREDIT: AP Photo/Courtesy of U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin
Last Tuesday, a Republican federal judge named Rudolph Randa handed down an unusual order cutting off a criminal investigation alleging illegal coordination between several political campaigns — including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) 2012 recall campaign — and conservative groups such as the Wisconsin Club for Growth. Randa speckled his order with uncharacteristic rhetoric for a judge tasked with being a neutral and impartial arbiter of the law. At one point, he labels the criminal probe “a long-running investigation of all things Walker-related.” At another point, he compares efforts to reign in excessive campaign spending to “the Guillotine and the Gulag.”
One day after Randa ordered this investigation halted, even requiring prosecutors to return or destroy documents that provided evidence that illegal coordination took place, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit issued a brief order holding that Randa had no business deciding this case in the first place — as the case was already on appeal. “[O]nce a litigant files a notice of appeal,” the Seventh Circuit explained, “a district court may not take any further action in the suit unless it certifies that the appeal is frivolous. The district court failed to follow that rule when, despite the notice of appeal filed by several defendants, it entered a preliminary injunction.” Not to be outdone, Randa responded on Thursday by saying that the appeal was, indeed, frivolous. A position that at least one legal scholar disagreed with, saying that Randa’s original ruling was “extraordinary.”
Extraordinary or not, Randa’s actions in this case do fit a pattern of ideological decisions in politically charged cases:
- Wrongful Conviction: Probably the most analogous case to the criminal probe he recently halted was the trial of former Wisconsin state purchasing supervisor Georgia L. Thompson, who was convicted of allegedly steering a state contract to a firm connected to the state’s Democratic governor. When a Democrat was at the center of a scandal, however, Randa handled the case very differently. Although Randa sentenced Thompson to eighteen months in federal prison, she served less than four months because the Seventh Circuit ordered her released. One Seventh Circuit judge said at oral argument that the evidence against Thompson was “beyond thin.”
- Protecting Sexually Abusive Priests: In 2007, then-Archbishop of Milwaukee Timothy Dolan penned a letter to the Vatican explaining that, by transferring approximately $57 million in church funds to a separate trust set up to maintain church cemeteries, he’d achieved “an improved protection of these funds from any legal claim and liability.” Six years later, Randa held that, by engaging in this accounting trick, the Milwaukee Archdiocese did indeed shield these funds from lawsuits — brought by victims of clergy sex abuse. Indeed, Randa held that the Catholic Church had a constitutional right to insulate this money from lawsuits brought by the victims of priestly sex abuse.
- Blocking Access To Women’s Health Clinics: In 1994, several individuals blockaded the entrance to a women’s health clinic in Milwaukee by wedging a car into the clinic’s front entryway to prevent people from entering or leaving. Three of them even welded themselves into the car while it was being used to block the clinic. The were charged with violating the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. Randa responded to this incident by declaring this act unconstitutional. The Seventh Circuit reversed Randa, explaining that he “went beyond [his] own authority as defined by the Supreme Court.”
Beyond whatever ideological lens Randa brings to his courtroom, as George Zornick points out, he also has an unusually personal connection to the criminal probe that he shut down. Randa’s judicial assistant is married to a top lawyer for the Walker campaign. According to the Center for Media and Democracy, Randa is also a board member of the Milwaukee Federalist Society, a prominent conservative legal group.