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Welcome to STop, the Seattle Times Opinion blog where our editorial writers and editors share their evolving thoughts on a variety of issues. STop is a place where opinion writers and readers can exchange views and readers can learn more about how editorial positions are formed.

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January 10, 2005

Disclosure and privileges

Should advice given by a government attorney to a government official be private or public? That was the question in the Hangartner case at the Washington Supreme Court last year, and at a Federalist Society forum in Seattle last week.

The court said the advice should be private, and that the public didn't have a right to see it. Supporting the court at the forum was Tom Carr, Seattle city attorney. His argument was that the attorney/client privilege is hundreds of years old, it is absolute, and it exists for a good reason: to encourage people to consult attorneys.

If his legal advice to Mayor Greg Nickels, or some other Seattle official, was made a public document, its value would be compromised. When he gave an opinion, people might think he was playing to the crowd, not serving his client; and his client might think so, too.

Opposing the court was attorney Judith Endjean. Her argument was that both the government lawyer and official are paid by the public and supposedly working for the public. If disclosure makes governing more difficult, her attitude is, “Tough bananas. Get over it.”

I come to this issue with a professional bias: I work for a newspaper, and we need to find things out.

An example of the use of the public-disclosure law is the outcry in June 2002 over the Washington State Ferries’ decision to inspect every 15th vehicle in line for a boat. Did the state have the legal right to do this? Using the public disclosure law, the American Civil Liberties Union obtained a copy of the state attorney general’s opinion on it -- which was that Washington State Ferries had scant legal justification.

I wrote a column about it.

I think there should be an attorney/client privilege if the public official is being sued. Otherwise, no.

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Posted by Bruce Ramsey at January 10, 2005 02:38 PM



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