The Cap Times
“The First Amendment still lives in Wisconsin’s Capitol today,” declares Patricia Hammel, the vice chair of the Madison chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.
Hammel, an attorney for one of the singers arrested during Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to silence dissent in the state Capitol last year, was celebrating a major victory in the long legal struggle to restore respect for the Constitution in Walker’s Wisconsin.
The rule Walker and his aides cobbled together in order to restrict freedom of speech and freedom of assembly has been determined to be unconstitutional in a ruling by Dane County Circuit Court Judge John Markson, who this week dismissed 29 tickets that were issued last year to Solidarity Sing Along participants and observers. The judge embraced an argument from defendant Michael W. Crute that the state's permit requirement violates the First Amendment because it applies, on its face, to very small groups.
Markson explained that the Walker administration’s case for punishing those who gathered peacefully in the Capitol “is about the state’s seeking to exact a penalty from a citizen who was exercising his right to free speech and assembly.”
The ruling came as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with the Constitution.
The question now is whether the Wisconsin Department of Justice -- which has already embarrassed itself enough -- will recognize reality and back off from the expensive and wrongheaded prosecution of others arrested for singing.
When Judge Markson dismissed 29 forfeiture tickets issued under what has been determined to be an unconstitutional infringement on basic rights, he determined that the Department of Justice’s handling of this matter has been inappropriate. But the DOJ has not said whether it will continue wasting money, time and energy on a political errand for Walker.
“Gov. Scott Walker and Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen are on the wrong side of history and the constitution,” explains state Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, who argues that “the DOJ must immediately dismiss all of the approximately 400 remaining frivolous citations.”
Taylor is right on the broad constitutional point. She is also right to note the extreme fiscal and administrative irresponsibility of the DOJ's approach.
“As Judge Markson acknowledged in his ruling, these Solidarity Singer citations make up more than one-third of all contested forfeiture cases opened in Dane County Circuit Court last year. It is high time the DOJ cease wasting thousands of taxpayer dollars to prosecute individuals who received unconstitutional tickets, as continuing these actions is tantamount to harassment.
J. B. Van Hollen will step down at the end of his current term. Throughout his tenure, Van Hollen has faced complaints about his politicization of his office. He has made a mess of things. But Van Hollen could -- and should -- begin to clean that mess up by ending these unconstitutional, and irresponsible, prosecutions.