Special Prosecutor Francis Schmitz, who is looking into supposed illegal coordination between independent conservative groups in Wisconsin and the recall campaign of Governor Scott Walker, got a nasty surprise from a state judge on Friday.

Some so-called “John Doe” subpoenas issued by Schmitz were ruled improper because they “do not show probable cause that the moving parties committed any violations of the campaign finance laws.”

The Wall Street Journal reports:

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.

Mr. Landgraf works for Milwaukee County Democratic D.A. John Chisholm, and this is their second secret probe of Mr. Walker. The first one ended up with small-time violations against Walker aides but didn’t touch the Governor.

The subpoenas asked for all information and data and communications stretching back to 2009, two years before the recall elections that were supposedly the central issue. Because the subpoenas sought both donor identities and internal communications of the targeted groups, they failed to demonstrate the narrow and targeted investigation that the First Amendment demands. Our sources also say that only conservative groups were targeted.

If at first you don’t succeed…

Democrats in Wisconsin are desperate. Walker’s public employee reforms have eviscerated the power of unions in the state and Democrats are looking for any way they can to even the playing field. Much of the cash, many campaign workers, and much of the energy in Democratic politics in the state come from public unions. And with the unions crippled, Democrats are worried that the same coalition that brought Walker victory in the recall election will ride over them again in November.

Walker’s allies aren’t out of the woods yet. But without the subpoenas, Schmitz will have a hard time making any kind of a case against them.