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Inside Politics

Court: Dean papers may not be privileged

Howard Dean campaigns in Wisconsin.
Howard Dean campaigns in Wisconsin.

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(CNN) -- Former Gov. Howard Dean must provide a detailed index of his gubernatorial records and explain why he thinks they should be kept secret, a Vermont judge ruled on Tuesday.

Dean cited executive privilege when he negotiated a private deal with the state of Vermont to deny public access to his records. The Washington-based public interest group Judicial Watch filed suit to force the documents' release.

Washington County Superior Court Judge Alan Cook said state law prescribes a "restriction on use" of documents, such as Dean's, given to the secretary of state for safekeeping, but does not provide for a "prohibition on access."

The judge also said that a "memorandum of understanding" between Dean and the state "does not establish that any requested records are exempt from disclosure."

However, the judge denied Judicial Watch's motion to force Dean and the state to release the documents. Instead, he sketched out a process to determine which documents would fall under executive privilege and which would not.

The ruling came as voters in Wisconsin went to the polls for that state's primary. Dean skipped last week's contests to focus on Wisconsin. (Full story) (CNN.com's interactive Election Calendar)

Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton hailed the ruling as a victory.

"Howard Dean is now getting a lesson in government openness," said Fitton said. "The court ruling pierces Dean's veil of secrecy and begins to open up his gubernatorial record to public scrutiny."

The state of Vermont and Dean had no immediate comment on the ruling.

Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell had asked the court to dismiss the group's complaint. According to Dean's agreement, the 145 boxes of records were to be kept sealed until January 10, 2013.

In Dean's days as the front-runner in the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination, his rivals used the issue of the sealed documents -- and Dean's reluctance to release them -- to hammer at his campaign persona of a straight-talker with nothing to hide.

Judicial Watch, through a public records request, uncovered that attorneys for Dean and the state had discussed a future run for president as a reason for sealing the documents, and in January, Dean told Vermont Public Radio that "there are future political considerations."

"You wouldn't want anything embarrassing appearing in the papers at a critical time in any future endeavor," Dean said.

Dean later said the remark was not serious. He argued that it is standard practice for governors to seal certain records, but washed his hands of the matter, saying he would leave it to the court to decide the records' fate.


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