N.M. Supreme Court & Executive Privilege Part 1: Deliberative Process Privilege 3

In a move that places the state at odds with federal law and many state laws, the New Mexico Supreme Court recently issued a major opinion regarding executive privilege.  In Republican Party of New Mexico v. New Mexico Taxation & Revenue Dep’t, 283 P.3d 853 (N.M. 2012), the Court rejected a deliberative process privilege and recognized a limited, state constitutional-based chief executive communications privilege. In this post we will focus on the Court’s rejection of the deliberative process privilege.

In Republican Party, the New Mexico Republican Party made a request under the State’s Public Records Act for Taxation and Revenue Department records relating to the issuance of drivers’ licenses to foreign nationals. The Public Records Act contains an exception for records exempted from disclosure by other state law, which includes constitutional and common-law privileges. The State refused production of some documents on grounds that they were protected by the executive privilege.

The Supreme Court engaged in an exhaustive review of federal and other states’ law regarding the executive privileges, including the deliberative process privilege and the presidential or chief executive communications privilege.  The Court ably distinguished these two evidentiary privileges but held “emphatically that no deliberative process privilege exists under New Mexico law” with little explanation as to why the privilege should not be recognized. The only justification seemed to be that the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which references the deliberative process privilege in Exemption 5, and the state Public Records Act, were not identical.  However, many state courts recognize a common-law deliberative process privilege without a correlating public records act justification, and the N.M. Supreme Court did not provide a common-law basis for rejecting the privilege.

PoP Analysis.  Many federal and state courts confuse and conflate the deliberative process privilege and the chief executive communications privilege by labeling each the “executive privilege.”  Courts and lawyers should be mindful that the phrase “executive privilege” is broad and encompasses four distinct evidentiary privileges: (1) chief-executive communications privilege; (2) deliberative process privilege; (3) law-enforcement privilege; and (4) government–informant privilege.  And it would be helpful to the bench and bar if lawyers and courts would follow the New Mexico Supreme Court’s lead and use the proper terminology when referring to these privileges.

The Court’s rejection of the deliberative process privilege breaks with federal law and several states.  But the Court failed to sufficiently explain why New Mexico should not recognize the deliberative process privilege, and now the issue likely will have to be addressed, if at all, through legislation or amendments to the N.M. Rules of Evidence.  One conflict-of-law issue to consider: what if New Mexico is sued in federal court on a federal question (e.g. § 1983 civil rights case) and asserts that the federal deliberative process privilege protects deliberative documents from discovery—would the court apply the federal privilege or hold that no privilege exists? Courts differ whether to apply the federal deliberative process privilege in these situations, see United States v. Lake County Bd. of Comm’rs, 233 F.R.D. 523, 525 n.1 (N.D. Ind. 2005), but, if the federal privilege applies, then New Mexican state governmental agencies may assert the deliberative process privilege in federal court but not in state court.