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DeSantis has executive privilege, a judge ruled, setting up legal battle over secrecy

Emily L. Mahoney, Tampa Bay Times on

Published in News & Features

TAMPA, Fla. — Gov. Ron DeSantis has been eyeing a run for president, but he’s not waiting until 2024 to assert one of the most contested legal rights associated with that office.

In multiple lawsuits, DeSantis’ lawyers have claimed that the governor wields executive privilege, a special right invoked by U.S. presidents that shields them from disclosing information of their choosing.

Yet in a bombshell decision last month in an otherwise little-noticed lawsuit, a Tallahassee judge agreed with DeSantis’ attorneys that he, too, possesses executive privilege.

The case, which is being appealed, sets up a high-stakes test of Florida’s government transparency laws — widely considered among the most open in the country. If higher courts uphold that DeSantis has the right to shield certain records, it could dramatically hinder the public’s ability to pry information out of the state, open government advocates warn.

The Tampa Bay Times is joining other media outlets in preparing a friend of the court brief in the appeal, advocating against the withholding of records.

“We consent to be governed and don’t elect public officials to act without accountability,” said Michael Barfield, director of public access with the Florida Center for Government Accountability in Tallahassee. The group has sued the DeSantis administration in separate cases over records related to Florida’s flights transporting migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard.


Barfield said that the DeSantis administration had likely been asserting executive privilege in multiple cases in hopes of having a higher court set a precedent that could be applied in other lawsuits.

“This has been a calculated effort to establish executive privilege so the governor has no accountability to the public,” Barfield said.

Catherine Cameron, a Stetson University professor specializing in media law, said she searched through previous cases and could find no instance of a Florida governor asserting executive privilege before DeSantis. Executive privilege is not mentioned in the state Constitution nor state law, unlike the public’s right to records, which is enshrined in both.

The governor’s office declined to answer emailed questions about its claim of executive privilege, directing a reporter to its legal filings.


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