Washington Supreme Court: Executive Privilege Allows Governor To Withhold Documents Under Public Records Act
In a milestone decision, the Washington Supreme Court today upheld Gov. Christine Gregoire's assertion of executive privilege to prevent disclosure of documents under the Washington Public Records Act. Concluding that the "cardinal and fundamental" constitutional principle of separation of powers overrides the Public Records Act's "strongly worded mandate for broad disclosure of public records," today's decision permits the Governor to assert executive privilege over documents created in the process of formulating policy and prevent disclosure of those documents under the Public Records Act. The decision effectively creates a new Public Records Act exemption for documents created in the executive branch policy formulation process. It also shifts the burdens of proof that generally apply under the Public Records Act. (Freedom Foundation v. Gregoire, Wa. Sup. Ct. No. 86384-9 (decided Oct. 17, 2013)).
Today's decision arose from a dispute over a half-dozen documents created by Governor Gregoire and her senior advisory staff discussing controversial topics such as replacement of Seattle's Alaska Way Viaduct, the Columbia River Biological Opinion, and medical marijuana legislation. An employee of the Freedom Foundation requested eleven documents on these subjects under the Public Records Act, which generally requires all government documents to be released upon request unless a specific exemption applies. Gov. Gregoire released five of the documents and a redacted version of a sixth. The remaining documents were withheld, but rather than following the usual course of relying on a specific statutory exemption to justify withholding, the Governor's office asserted executive privilege over the documents. The Governor argued that executive privilege is inherent in the separation of powers scheme implied in the Washington constitution, and the documents were subject to executive privilege because they were used by the Governor to formulate policy. The lower court agreed with these arguments and the Supreme Court accepted direct review.