California’s highest state court on Thursday struck down a law that would have required President Trump to hand over his tax returns as a condition to appearing on the state’s ballot for the Republican primary.
In a unanimous ruling, the California Supreme Court held that key portions of the Presidential Tax Transparency and Accountability Act, signed in July, violated the state’s constitution.
The law also requires gubernatorial candidates to disclose their tax returns for ballot access, but the California justices did not address that portion of the law.
The ruling comes ahead of the Nov. 26 deadline by which candidates would have needed to disclose their tax returns in order to appear on the state's March presidential primary ballot.
In its ruling, the California Supreme Court sided with the California Republican Party over California Secretary of State Alex Padilla (D).
The court argued that the law creates an additional requirement that is in conflict with the state constitution's "specification of an inclusive open presidential primary ballot."
"The Legislature may well be correct that a presidential candidate’s income tax returns could provide California voters with important information," the court said in its ruling. "But article II, section 5(c) embeds in the state Constitution the principle that, ultimately, it is the voters who must decide whether the refusal of a 'recognized candidate throughout the nation or throughout California for the office of President of the United States' to make such information available to the public will have consequences at the ballot box."
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye authored the opinion of the court, which was joined by the other six justices. One justice, Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, also filed a concurring opinion.
Several lawsuits have also been filed against the California law in federal court. Last month, a federal district court judge in California granted a preliminary injunction against the law. Padilla has appealed that ruling to the federal Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
Requiring candidates to disclose their tax returns to appear on the ballot had been a controversial idea well before Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed the act into law this year. His predecessor, former Gov. Jerry Brown (D) vetoed the bill during his tenure.
Republican state legislators applauded the decision.
"Republicans have repeatedly voiced our position that the Democrats' Presidential Disclosure law is unconstitutional and an attempt to tamper with the Presidential primary by suppressing Republican voter turn-out," said state Senate Republican Leader Shannon Grove. "Today, the justices of the State Supreme Court validated our concerns and sided with us."
The legal fight over the California law is one of many involving Trump as he fights to keep his financial records private.
Two others cases are now before the Supreme Court, which will decide whether to take them up. Trump has appealed court rulings allowing the House Oversight and Reform Committee to subpoena his financial records as well as a ruling allowing New York City prosecutors to enforce a separate subpoena for his records.
I think presidential candidates should release their tax returns. President Trump has refused to do so, making the implausible contention that all of his tax returns for every year at every level are being audited by the Internal Revenue Service. (Note that legally, nothing prevents Trump from releasing his returns during an audit.) But Trump’s election suggests that the American electorate doesn’t find this lack of disclosure to be a deal-breaker.
But I’m wary at best about any government effort to mandate the public disclosure of a candidate’s tax returns, whether it’s House Ways and Means Committee chairman Richard Neal declaring Trump’s returns are needed for oversight of the IRS audit procedures, or a bill signed into law in California earlier this year that would bar Trump from appearing on that state’s primary ballot unless he released his tax returns.
Thankfully, the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the state cannot bar candidates from appearing on the ballot for refusing to disclose their returns.
In 1972, California passed Proposition 4, an amendment to the state constitution declaring that “those found by the Secretary of State to be recognized candidates throughout the nation or throughout California for the office of the President of the United States, and those whose names placed on the ballot by petition” could not be barred from the ballot. Under the old system, candidates had to submit lists of delegates to the California Secretary of State to appear on the ballot, and that led to John F. Kennedy not appearing on the 1960 Democratic primary ballot and Richard Nixon not appearing on the 1968 Republican primary ballot. The Secretary of State protected “Favorite Son” candidates Pat Brown in 1960 and Ronald Reagan in 1968.
Fed up with ballot access being limited to help out particular candidates, California voters amended the constitution to ensure every candidate could appear on the primary ballot.
The state Supreme Court found that the law barring any candidates who refused to disclose their tax returns “conflicts with the more inclusive presidential primary that the electorate endorsed when it approved Proposition 4.”