Professor: Christie Hired Legal Team to Determine What’s Privileged in GWB Investigation

Gov. Chris Christie has hired his own legal team to assist with document retention and production in the investigation into the George Washington Bridge lane closures. Seton Hall Associate Political Science Professor Robert Pallitto told NJTV News Anchor Harry Martin that damaging information is more likely to come out during the legislative investigation process.

Pallitto said that the governor hiring his own legal team means that Christie wants to be sure about what is releasable in the investigation and what he can properly claim as privileged or not releasable.

As for the use of executive privilege, Pallitto said that it is more commonly used in federal law, concerning the president and the federal executive branch. An example he used as the most famous case of using executive privilege is the President Nixon case, where Nixon tried to keep certain records when he was being investigated, saying that they fell under executive privilege because they were part of the process of getting advice from counselors, so he didn’t have to divulge the records to the court.

Pallitto said there are differences between the New Jersey Constitution and the Federal Constitution, but the powers of the legislature and the executive branch are the same.

“The legislature has a power to inquire through commission like Congress does and the executive has the power to carry out his or her duties and those are the two constitutional provisions that usually clash in executive privilege cases. The New Jersey courts have sometimes addressed executive privilege or the power of the executive to keep documents secret. It’s just that the law is not as well developed and since it’s not as well developed, there’s more discretion for the courts,” Pallitto said.

Executive privilege is simply a creation of the courts and the courts theoretically could take it away or restrict it, Pallitto said. He said New Jersey has the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and it creates the presumption that public records belong to the public, so they should be released to the public. But there are exceptions.

“I think it’s more important to see what the legislature asks for because the legislature isn’t bound by OPRA, it’s bound by the Constitution. The legislature has made requests for information which are backed by a constitutional authority. I think we are more likely to see damaging information come through the legislative investigation process,” Pallitto said.