“Transparency is an essential feature of the relationship between the people and their government.”
— N.M. Supreme Court Justice Patricio Serna, in an opinion written for the court
Last week the state’s highest court made an important — and unanimous — decision limiting who can claim, and what can be kept from the public under the guise of “executive privilege.”
It is welcome guidance, especially considering the previous gubernatorial administration’s expansive view of that secrecy tool.
Under then-Gov. Bill Richardson, the state Department of Transportation wasted about $250,000 on legal fees in an unsuccessful attempt to keep the public from reviewing its records. The Environment Department frittered away thousands to try to keep secret a 2005 study on potential groundwater risks from a Sandia National Laboratories mixed-waste landfill. And the Governor’s Office said it would be too burdensome to reveal the results of an investigation into what happened to developmentally disabled clients discharged from state institutions.
So it was heartening that Gov. Susana Martinez began her administration by signing an executive order just minutes after her Jan. 1, 2011, inauguration saying, in part, that state agencies cannot deny public record requests by citing “executive privilege” except when explicitly approved by the governor.
And it is significant that the Supreme Court has now ruled only the governor can claim executive privilege, and only regarding information related to the governor’s decision making that is to or from top advisers.
Serna says the limits outlined in the opinion “protect the people’s vital right to access information about the workings of government.”
New Mexicans pay for their government, and it is supposed to work for them. But given the state’s struggles with providing access to that information, it’s good to have the public’s right to know protected for posterity by the Supreme Court.