California High Court Strikes Down Candidate Tax Return Law

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – The California Supreme Court delivered a win to President Donald Trump on Thursday, blocking a new state law that would have required him to release tax returns to California voters before the March primary.

California Supreme Court headquarters in San Francisco. (Photo credit: Coolcaesar/Wikipedia)

The state’s high court ruled that the law violates a constitutional amendment that requires all “recognized” candidates for president to have primary ballot access.

“Insofar as the act would make such a candidate’s disclosure of income tax returns a requirement for inclusion on a qualifying party’s primary ballot, its provisions conflict with this intent, and are therefore unconstitutional,” the 53-page order, written by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, states.

The decision is the latest blow to California Democrats’ brazen attempt to expose Trump’s tax returns and falls in line with a September order by a federal judge who called the law a “trampling” of the constitutional standards for running for president.

In response to the unanimous ruling, California officials said they will be dropping their federal appeal, signaling the end of the legal fight over SB 27 and making it a banner day for Trump and state Republicans.

“While we are disappointed in today’s ruling, the movement for greater transparency will endure. The history of our democracy is on the side of more transparency, not less,” said California Secretary of State Alex Padilla.

Supporters contended Senate Bill 27’s main goals are to inform voters and ensure that candidates aren’t running for office for personal profit. It cleared the state’s Democratic-controlled Legislature on party-line votes and Governor Gavin Newsom said he hoped it would become a national standard when he signed it last July.

But the ballot access law quickly hit a snag, as a host of challengers led by Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Committee sued to stop the law in federal court.

The Republicans argued the law was “nakedly partisan” and latched onto the fact that several past presidential candidates didn’t release their tax returns. They also highlighted former Governor Jerry Brown’s veto of the same bill in 2017 due to concerns that it could spur other states to try and pass outlandish requirements.

“Today we require tax returns, but what would be next? Five years of health records? A certified birth certificate? High school report cards?” Brown asked in his veto message.

The Republicans’ arguments were persuasive and U.S. District Judge Morrison England Jr. trounced the law, mirroring Brown’s concerns in an October ruling.

“The dangerous precedent set by this act, allowing the controlling party in any state’s legislature to add substantive requirements as a precondition to qualifying for the state’s presidential primary ballot, should concern all candidates alike, Republican, Democrat or otherwise. It certainly concerns the court,” England said in granting Trump and the Republicans’ motion for preliminary injunction.

While the federal challenge was gaining national attention, the California Republican Party and its chair Jessica Millan Patterson filed a separate challenge claiming SB 27 violates the state constitution. The high court granted the petition special consideration due to the pending election filing guidelines and the case skipped the underlying superior and appeal court steps.

During oral arguments earlier this month in Sacramento, the justices had hard-hitting questions for the state’s attorney and signaled that the law was on shaky ground.

Justice Ming Chin, appointed by Republican Governor Pete Wilson, was warm to the GOP’s argument that SB 27 goes against the spirit of open primaries and also raised the possibility of the Legislature passing new ballot access requirements.

“Where does it end?” Chin asked Deputy Attorney General Jay Russell.

Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye said the court couldn’t find anything in legislative history or the state’s briefs that lawmakers even consulted the 1972 constitutional amendment requiring open primaries.

Thursday’s order comes just days before a filing deadline that Trump and other presidential candidates would have needed to meet under SB 27, meaning the law won’t affect the March 2020 primary regardless of the ongoing federal dispute.

Republicans celebrated Thursday’s unanimous ruling and accused the majority party of “wasting taxpayer dollars.”

“Thank you to the Supreme Court for striking down this illegal voter suppression effort and upholding our nation’s laws and values,” said Republican Assembly Leader Devon Mathis in a statement. “Now that this nonsense is over with, it would be great to see Democrats focus on the actual problems facing Californians.”

All seven justices, including Cantil-Sakauye – who is registered with no party preference – united against the ballot access requirement. They rejected the state’s argument that the Legislature had “plenary powers” to regulate primary elections and ruled that SB 27 conflicts with Proposition 4, approved by voters in 1972.

“The Legislature may well be correct that a presidential candidate’s income tax returns could provide California voters with important information,” Cantil-Sakauye wrote for the court. “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 the President of the United States’ to make such information available to the public will have consequences at the ballot box.”

McGeorge School of Law professor Leslie Jacobs called the high court’s ruling the “end of the road” for SB 27.

“California has to figure out whether it should spend California taxpayer dollars arguing for a law that’s not possibly going to work in California,” Jacobs said in a phone interview. “If I were making that judgment, I would spend my resources elsewhere.”

In a concurring opinion, Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuellar said the court’s holding in the case is “narrow” and that there is still value in voters having access to candidates’ tax returns.

“That the public, through moral suasion or a legal requirement crafted by its elected representatives, has so often succeeded in forcing disclosure of essential financial information about political candidates would not have come as a surprise to our nation’s founders,” he wrote.

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