Trials test public forum for protestThe Republican “get tough” approach to state Capitol protestors may be expensive.
By: By Matt Pommer, Superior Telegram
The Republican “get tough” approach to state Capitol protestors may be expensive.
The Department of Justice, headed by Attorney. General J.B. Van Hollen is working on more than 100 tickets issued to protestors for allegedly violating administrative rules including getting permits to stage rallies.
It is an outgrowth of lingering demonstrations at the Capitol that followed passage of laws gutting collective bargaining for most public employees. The labor laws were passed by Republican legislative majorities and signed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
Former Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs helped create a respective relationship between protestors and law enforcement personnel.
Republicans grumbled at that approach and criticized Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, a Democrat, for dismissing many of the tickets.
Tubbs left for another job, and the Walker administration appointed David Erwin as Capitol Police chief. He, in turn, asked the Department of Justice to handle the forfeiture case prosecutions.
Capitol Police started citing protestors for a variety of actions, including holding signs over railings and allegedly blocking corridors. One ticket went to a man who wrote a protest sign in chalk on an outside Capitol sidewalk. Police tracked down protestors at their homes to serve the tickets.
Four Department of Justice lawyers are working on the citations, a DOJ lawyer has told reporters.
On the other side, about 15 local attorneys have stepped forward to represent the charged protestors. Almost all of them have requested jury trials rather than agree to pay the fines.
Among the defense lawyers active in the fight is Robert Jambois, a former Kenosha County district attorney and retired counsel at the Department of Transportation. He said he is working full days on seeking the jury trials.
“I have done a lot of trials, and I like doing trials, and I want to take every one of these to trial,” Jambois told Madison’s Isthmus newspaper.
“I am so offended by what this government is doing at this juncture that I decided to jump in with both feet, and I’m prepared to do this until we’re done,” he added.
Among the legal questions is whether the Capitol is a public forum and is the place where a person should be able to express dissent. First Amendment issues of free speech are likely to be heard in the courthouse.
The Department of Justice would like a judge, not a jury, to consider the 1st Amendment question, saying it is not a legal question appropriate to be decided by juries.
Jambois said he ultimately expected the state to pay his legal fees.
A Department of Justice spokeswoman said the DOJ efforts don’t involve any additional expenses to the taxpayers because “representing the government is our job.”
Perhaps, but the time spent by the four assistant attorneys general on the forfeiture cases and trial expenses, could end up being an issue in the 2014 race for attorney general.