updated 12/24/2003 11:08:40 AM ET 2003-12-24T16:08:40

Vermont’s attorney general says the state should dismiss a lawsuit seeking to open the gubernatorial records of Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean on grounds the former governor’s papers are not subject to the state’s public records law.

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The move by Attorney General William Sorrell came Tuesday in response to a lawsuit by Judicial Watch, a Washington-based group that wants to unseal the documents. Dean’s rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination have used the issue of the sealed papers to criticize his calls for openness in government.

Dean's rivals criticize use of executive privilege
“He’s hiding behind executive privilege, which is exactly what (President) Bush and (Vice President Dick) Cheney are doing,” said Steve Murphy, campaign manager for Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt. “I don’t know how you expect to beat them when you’re using the same arguments. It also begs the question of what are they hiding?”

Stephanie Cutter, a spokeswoman for rival candidate Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, also questioned Dean’s intentions.

“At first, Dean said he would open his records when George W. Bush did. Turns out Bush’s records were open,” Cutter said. “Then he said he would let a judge decide, but now he’s hiding behind an attorney general he himself appointed. It really makes you wonder what he’s hiding.”

Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, another Dean rival, said this month that closing the records countered Dean’s efforts to present himself as a straight talker.

“That’s not the way to build public trust — especially after three years of secret-keeping and information-blocking by George W. Bush,” Lieberman said.

Dean has said he would let the courts decide which documents to release.

At issue are 145 boxes of papers that Dean ordered sealed for 10 years when he left office in January. He also gave the state 190 boxes that were immediately available to the public.

“Judicial Watch, Inc., is not presently entitled to inspect the gubernatorial papers that were sealed by Governor Dean” under the terms of an agreement between Dean and the secretary of state, Sorrell said in his filing.

‘We think we've got a strong case’
“We think we’ve got a strong case here,” he said earlier Tuesday. “The Vermont Supreme Court has repeatedly acknowledged the validity of executive privilege.”

Two of Dean’s predecessors used executive privilege to seal roughly the same percentage of their documents as well, but not for as long a period of time.

The state argued that 10 years was chosen “as a reasonable but brief period” compared to states like New Jersey, where the papers of former Gov. Thomas H. Kean were sealed for 20 years, and Maryland, where records were sealed for 30 years.

Sorrell, a former aide to then-Gov. Dean, said Vermont governors routinely seal some documents upon leaving office, and that Dean doesn’t have total control over the records.

“If Howard Dean were to say tomorrow ’I’d like to see them opened,’ that’s not to say they’d all be opened,” Sorrell said. He explained that the documents would still need to be reviewed, and papers such as medical records removed.

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