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Published: Wednesday, 7/26/2006

Wall of secrecy

THE wall of executive privilege the Ohio Supreme Court has built around Gov. Bob Taft is now a few bricks higher and, as we predicted, it is obscuring the public's view of the daily activities of the state's chief executive.

In a decision worthy of the old Soviet politburo, the court's core of activist justices ruled that weekly reports to Mr. Taft from his top aides are were public records but wouldn't be made available directly to the person who requested them because that individual failed to show a "particularized need."

The 5-2 ruling is the illogical extension of the court's April 13 ruling, in which the justices granted executive privilege to Mr. Taft in what could only be described as a transparent attempt to shield him from further political damage in Coingate and associated scandals.

The fact that the records were, in fact, finally made public this week does not lessen the damage to the people's right to know. It's the uncertainty over what will happen the next time that counts.

The notion that the state's highest court should be called upon to decide every routine public-records request involving the governor is absurd as a matter of public policy. Moreover, it turns upside down and seriously weakens what used to be a strong state open-records law.

The decision also reeks of politics because the court - whose members are elected on a partisan basis - has assumed the role of judge and jury in deciding in secret who gets to see what from among documents sent to the governor by his aides. This cozy arrangement appears to be nothing less than an unholy alliance between the Republican governor and the five majority GOP justices.

In this case, the court said the reports to Mr. Taft were not protected by executive privilege but that they did not have to be provided to state Sen. Marc Dann, a Democrat who is running for attorney general and who sought the documents under a writ of mandamus.

Senator Dann, one of the loudest official critics on Coingate, was seeking more evidence of improprieties in the Bureau of Workers' Compensation but was short-stopped by the court, which said the documents in question had nothing to do with the bureau.

The five justices missed the point: Senator Dann asked for all of the reports, not just those pertaining to the BWC. Moreover, records kept by public officials are owned by the public and no citizen should be required to state a reason for viewing them. Only jurists intent on protecting one of their party's own could come up with such a twisted rationale for secrecy.

Justice Alice Robie Resnick, who dissented from both executive privilege rulings with Justice Paul Pfeifer, correctly points out that the five-justice majority has the cart before the horse. How could Senator Dann, or any Ohioan in a similar situation, show a "particularized need" for an official document before knowing what's in it?

While the court sought to fashion a narrower definition of what is covered by its doctrine of privilege, we believe the majority has only accentuated the foolishness - and the partisan nature - of the April 13 ruling.

The loser in this case is the Ohio public, which will find its view of the official activities of the governor blocked from scrutiny by an ever-taller wall of secrecy.

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