Friday afternoon we saw a social media post and wondered Has the John Doe Probe of Wisconsin Conservatives Crumbled?

Now, thanks to the Wall Street Journal, we know that while not over, the probe has been severely curtailed by a ruling of the presiding judge.

In an article wherein they called the ruling a "big victory for the First Amendment," they wrote.

Now we learn that Judge Gregory A. Peterson ruled on Friday that at least some of those subpoenas were improper. They "do not show probable cause that the moving parties committed any violations of the campaign finance laws," he wrote. His opinion remains under seal but we obtained a copy.

The quashed subpoenas were sent to Friends of Scott Walker, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce Inc., the Wisconsin Club for Growth, and Citizens for a Strong America, as well as their officers and directors. Judge Peterson's order doesn't apply to other subpoena targets, but they can presumably get the same result if they file a motion with the judge and have a similar factual basis.

The order is all the more remarkable because it bluntly rejects the prosecutor's theory of illegal coordination between the groups and the Walker campaign. Wisconsin's campaign finance statutes ban coordination between independent groups and candidates for a "political purpose." But a political purpose "requires express advocacy," the judge wrote, and express advocacy means directly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate.

"There is no evidence of express advocacy" and therefore "the subpoenas fail to show probable cause that a crime was committed," Judge Peterson wrote. Even "the State is not claiming that any of the independent organizations expressly advocated" for the election of Mr. Walker or his opponent, he added. Instead they did "issue advocacy," which focuses on specific political issues.

This means that prosecutors essentially invented without evidence the possibility of criminal behavior to justify the subpoenas and their thuggish tactics. At least three targets had their homes raided at dawn, with police turning over belongings, seizing computers and files, and even barring phone calls.

The judge's order vindicates our suspicion that the John Doe probe is a political operation intended to shut up Mr. Walker's allies as he seeks re-election this year. No one has taken public credit for appointing the special prosecutor, but we know the probe began in the office of Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney Bruce Landgraf.

What a stunning rebuke of the investigators.

So what's next? As the Wall Street Journal reports: 

The John Doe probe isn't over, and no doubt Messrs. Schmitz and Landgraf will appeal the ruling to quash. But that should give the subpoena targets an opening to expand their defense beyond merely stopping this political trolling exercise. They can marshall constitutional arguments that should aim to dismantle the prosecutorial machinery of these illegal campaign-finance investigations.

The John Doe process has become a political weapon intended to serve partisan ends regardless of the law. Kudos to a judge who was brave enough to read the law and stop it, but there's more free-speech defending to do.

We knew this afternoon (and were the first to tell you) that something big had happened. The aftershocks of the ruling will now play out in the days ahead.  

Here's hoping the First Amendment continues to prevail