The back rooms of government may no longer be smoke-filled, but they are becoming even more exclusive than in the past.
The Washington Supreme Court ruled Oct. 17 that the state’s governor can claim “executive privilege” as a reason to withhold documents from the public.
Executive privilege hasn’t been among the hundreds of exemptions to Washington’s sunshine laws — until now, that is.
The decision may draw a sigh of resignation from readers who have learned to expect more and more public deliberation to take place behind closed doors. But the reality of new exemptions such as this one is that they chip away at the public’s right to know and, in this case, confer special status on one single elected representative of the people.
The court’s ruling said the state’s chief executive “must have access to candid advice in order to explore policy alternatives and reach appropriate decisions” though the privilege “does not exist to shroud all conversations involving the governor in secrecy and place them beyond the reach of public scrutiny.”
The majority opinion stated that the privilege only applies to communications made to inform policy choices, but identifying a qualifying discussion is left largely up to — you guessed it — the governor.
Former Wash. Gov. Chris Gregoire cited executive privilege in keeping secret hundreds of documents, prompting the court challenge by the Freedom Foundation, a libertarian think tank. Meanwhile, current Gov. Jay Inslee promises not to take advantage of provisions of the ruling. Let’s see how that goes for the remainder of his term. Even if he doesn’t avail himself of this law, the next governor will have the same privileges thanks to the newly enshrined privilege.
This ruling takes government one more step away from the public arena where deliberations, information and decisions related to public matters should be made if we are to maintain a belief in ourselves as a republic “of the people, by the people and for the people,” as Lincoln said.
It has been more than 40 years since states established sunshine laws in response to increasing secrecy in the halls of government.
Yet again, we are seeing more and more secrecy in government at all levels thanks to the proliferation of sunshine law exemptions. It is time to write the laws anew with the goal of keeping more of the public’s business before the public eye.