Why does Gov. DeSantis need the power of executive privilege?

Gov. Ron DeSantis doesn’t want you to know the names of the people helping him vet high-level judicial candidates. It might, his lawyers said, subject those consultations to unwanted scrutiny. The governor doesn’t trust regular Floridians with that kind of information. He doesn’t think it’s any of your business, even though it’s routine government business, paid for with your tax dollars. He wants the power to keep it from you by invoking executive privilege, an extreme power play that should make every Floridian wary of what he will hide next.

The case stems from an August podcast interview during which DeSantis said he had consulted a handful of conservative legal heavyweights when selecting nominees for the Florida Supreme Court. An anonymous person asked for documents showing communications between the governor’s office and the advisers.

In a lawsuit, the governor’s lawyers said turning over the documents would reveal the advisers’ names and argued for the governor’s internal actions to remain secret so he can freely receive advice and consider alternatives without fear of public scrutiny, the Tampa Bay Times reported. They argued that the governor has executive privilege, a special right invoked by US presidents that shields them from disclosing information of their choosing. DeSantis’ lawyers had made similar claims in several other cases. This time, a circuit judge agreed, paving the way for the high-stakes showdown over the state’s open government laws.

Now, it’s worth stopping here to say that Florida governors appear to have run the state since its founding without needing executive privileges. One legal expert told the Times that her search of court cases turned up no incidents of prior governors asserting executive privilege. DeSantis is an Ivy League-educated former member of Congress with a term as governor already under his belt. Is he not capable of running the state transparently? Why use the extreme tools of executive privilege to keep the public from looking behind the political curtain? What else will be hidden from public view?

Executive privileges are not mentioned in the Florida Constitution. It’s not in state law, either. You know what is found in both? The public’s right to records — written down as clear as a sunny Florida day. And for good reason. Transparency encourages honesty and good government. It allows citizens to watchdog their public officials and to better understand how their money is being spent. In contrast, secrecy breeds distrust. It allows the powerful to wield unchecked power. A revealing gut check on the merits of granting DeSantis executive privilege: Would you feel the same way if it was a Democratic governor asking for the same power?

The DeSantis administration is already known for slow-walking public records of requests, sometimes taking weeks to respond to an initial request and more than a year to cough up records. Don’t expect that to improve. In fact, if the appellate courts agree that DeSantis can assert executive privilege, expect to know less and less about how your state executive branch operates. Executive privilege will let DeSantis and his administration envelop themselves in darkness. It’s an arrogant, “I know best” approach unfit for a state that for decades prided itself on open government.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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