TRENTON - The governor could not govern if his private communications were open to the public, New Jersey's attorney general told a state appeals panel yesterday.

The argument was made as Gov. Corzine pressed to keep secret the e-mails he exchanged during public-employee contract talks with Carla Katz, the union leader he once dated.

Attorney General Anne Milgram, whose office represents the governor, argued that executive privilege protected the e-mails. She said that Corzine, a Democrat, needed assurance that his communications would be kept private in order to govern effectively, and that his ability to run the state would be compromised if citizens could see his private communications.

State Republican leader Tom Wilson and several news organizations, including the Associated Press, sought the release of the e-mails. In May, a lower court ruled that the public had a right to know what they contained.

A decision on Corzine's appeal is not expected for at least two weeks.

"We come to court today with a significant constitutional policy question," Milgram told the three judges.

She said that governors should be able to decide when to invoke the privilege over their communication, and that their decisions should be overruled only if a compelling need can be shown - a standard no private citizen could meet, she acknowledged.

GOP lawyer Mark Sheridan told the court that accepting Milgram's argument would shield virtually all governor's office communication. He had argued in the lower court that the public's right to see the exchanges outweighs the state's interest in keeping them secret.

Wilson questions whether contract negotiations were tainted by the relationship between Corzine and Katz, who dated Corzine before he became governor.