The governor of New Jersey, Jon Corzine, who is caught up in a potentially embarrassing lawsuit, is claiming that e-mail messages he exchanged with a union official are protected by executive privilege.
What is unusual about the case is that the official, the former leader of a state employees’ union, also was once his girlfriend. The claim of executive privilege is far too common; presidents and governors often view it as a way to get themselves out of a legal bind. In this case, it is also clearly wrong. As one court has already ruled, in a decision the governor is appealing, the e-mail messages should be released.
Tom Wilson, the chairman of the New Jersey Republican Party, filed the lawsuit to gain access to e-mails in which Mr. Corzine and the union official, Carla Katz, discuss contract negotiations between her union and the state. Mr. Wilson argues that the public has a right to see the e-mails to determine whether Ms. Katz exerted any improper influence. He is right.
Executive privilege provides presidents and governors a narrow right to privacy for discussions with their top aides to allow them to receive frank advice. Chief executives often try to stretch those privileges. Such claims are generally outweighed by the public’s right to know or the needs of the justice system for evidence of illegal activity. In the most famous privilege case, the Supreme Court rejected President Richard Nixon’s claim and ordered him to hand over the Watergate tapes.
Mr. Corzine’s case for executive privilege is particularly weak. Ms. Katz was not a member of his staff that provided him with confidential guidance. In fact, her union position put her in an adversarial relationship with the governor on the collective-bargaining issue.
There is little doubt that Mr. Wilson’s suit was intended to embarrass Mr. Corzine, who is almost certain to seek re-election next year. It may well be that if the e-mails are released, they will be harmful to Mr. Corzine’s political standing. That is not, however, a valid reason for concealing information about government operations that the public has every right to see.