Our governor is entitled, by the constitution, to operate in a shroud of secrecy, the state Supreme Court has ruled. Our governor is due to the same black cloak of “executive privilege” granted President Richard Nixon as he tried to block disclosure of his secrets. The state’s long tradition of open government, the Public Records Act approved by voters requiring records be open unless specifically exempt, none of that applies to the state’s executive. Should a citizen ask to view a document, the governor may “invoke a gubernatorial communications privilege” in response. The governor need not provide further justification. The citizen will have to go to court to prove a particular need, expensive and unlikely.
The 8-1 ruling Oct. 17 in Freedom Foundation v. Gregoire, turns the state’s open government law on its head. Where a record was presumed open unless government justified a need for secrecy, a governor’s record can now be presumed secret until a citizen invests the time and effort to pry it loose. The openness the law says is required of all government does not apply to the governor, for it infringes on the separation of powers. “The (Public Records Act) cannot override this constitutional delegation of power; any such attempt must come through constitutional amendment,” the court majority said, citing Nixon’s case as precedent.
Justice Jim Johnson’s powerful dissent opens with a quote from James Madison. “A popular government, without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: A people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” Johnson added: “It is not alarmist to say that this decision could place a shroud of secrecy over much government conduct, unless changed by a wiser court, electorate, or legislature.” The majority has “slammed the door on open government as it pertains to the governor.”
Perhaps a government built on openness can survive, if action is taken. Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, chair of the Government Operations Committee, said she will introduce a constitutional amendment to override the decision. “The public has the right to know what their government is doing, and the citizens have sent Olympia that message again and again,” she said. Gov. Jay Inslee has vowed not to invoke executive privilege and so far has lived up to his promises.
There is a possibility an amendment could move, be presented to voters, where it would likely receive strong support. Let the supporters of secrecy and privilege defend it in the open, or stand down and once again return to the public its right to remain informed.
This is the opinion of The Wenatchee World and its Editorial Board: Publisher Rufus Woods, Editor Cal FitzSimmons and Editorial Page Editor Tracy Warner.