SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Delivering a legal win for President Donald Trump, a federal judge on Thursday temporarily barred California from enforcing a law enacted to force the president to release his tax returns in order to appear on the state’s upcoming primary ballot.
U.S. District Judge Morrison England Jr. said he’s concerned that the recently signed law could overstep federal ethics laws regarding candidates’ financial disclosures and granted Trump and the Republican National Committee’s motion for preliminary injunction. England, nominated by President George W. Bush in 2002, took the unexpected step of issuing a tentative ruling from the bench to give the state a head start on its appeal, and said he will issue a final ruling by Oct. 1.
The order is the first in the latest battle between the president and California, this time over his personal finances, and sets up a looming showdown in the Ninth Circuit.
The sides are fighting over first-of-its-kind legislation signed in July by Gov. Gavin Newsom that requires presidential and gubernatorial candidates to release at least five years of recent tax returns in order to land on the state’s primary ballot. State Democrats want to force Trump’s hand and give California voters access to Trump’s tax returns before the February primary.
Trump’s campaign, the RNC and several other plaintiffs filed a flurry of lawsuits after the bill’s signing and their motions for preliminary injunction were heard together Thursday in England’s Sacramento courtroom.
“The judge is dead right,” said Roque De La Fuente, who filed one of the lawsuits and is running for president. “This law could open up Pandora’s box.”
For nearly three hours, the plaintiffs’ lawyers cast Senate Bill 27 as a retaliatory and unconstitutional law that could impact not just the presidential election, but down ballot races as well.
Trump’s personal attorney, Thomas McCarthy of Virginia-based Consovoy McCarthy, speculated that SB 27 could disenfranchise 5 million Republican voters in the March primary. Furthermore, McCarthy warned that if the “nakedly partisan” bill is allowed to stand, it could ignite a chain-reaction of new ballot requirements in other states.
“States could follow California’s lead and use SB 27 as a model,” McCarthy continued. “They could require candidates to release five years of mental health records.”
This isn’t the first time California Democrats have tried to unveil the president’s tax returns, as the Legislature passed a similar bill in 2017. But former Gov. Jerry Brown, who didn’t release his returns during some of his past presidential and gubernatorial bids and wouldn’t have been given ballot access under the current law, warned it may be unconstitutional and vetoed it.
“While I recognize the political attractiveness – even the merits – of getting President Trump’s tax returns, I worry about the political perils of individual states seeking to regulate presidential elections in this manner,” Brown said in his veto message. “Today we require tax returns, but what would be next? Five years of health records? A certified birth certificate? High school report cards?”
Trump has latched on to Brown’s message and made it a central part of his argument against SB 27. His lawyers claim the Legislature “ignored several warning flags” in enacting it, including the veto message and constitutional concerns from its nonpartisan Office of Legislative Counsel.
Judge England asked the state’s lawyers whether the legislative counsel’s concerns on the vetoed version were still relevant, two years later.
“It was an opinion, but it holds no weight here,” responded Peter Chang, California deputy attorney general.
England guided the free-flowing conversation between the dozen lawyers assembled in his courtroom primarily around whether SB 27 is pre-empted by the federal Ethics in Government Act and constitutional qualifications clause.
Statutory fallout from the Watergate scandal, the act requires presidential candidates and other federal officials to submit a range of financial disclosures, including personal income, gifts and property transactions. The act doesn’t preclude candidates from ballot access but does allow for regulators to issue fines.
The state noted the financial disclosures required by the act aren’t available until after California’s primary and argued that Congress didn’t intend to override state primary election requirements when they passed the law in 1978. Chang said SB 27 is necessary to create a more informed electorate and narrow in scope.
“Congress has not regulated state primary elections. If they want to touch that arena, they need to be very explicit,” Chang said.
The plaintiffs’ array of lawyers claimed the act already covers California’s push for financial disclosures and cast SB 27 as a First Amendment violation.
“This ballot access provision is the most extreme that we’ve seen,” said Justin Clark, attorney for the case brought by the GOP. “It prevents Republicans from choosing their standard bearer.”
England was skeptical of the timing of the bill’s passage and acknowledged the “elephant in the room” was Trump’s tax returns. He asked the defendants why lawmakers waited until Trump was elected to pass SB 27, and listed several other presidential candidates, including Jerry Brown, who didn’t release their taxes.
“None of the others were serious contenders,” Chang responded, drawing laughter from the defense and a baffled stare from the bench.
Many other states have proposed similar tax return requirements for presidential candidates, most notably New York and Illinois. California’s law only applies to the primary ballot and just candidates from the two major political parties.
One of SB 27’s authors disagreed with the judge that the law could result in irreparable harm to the president and GOP.
“Perplexing, premature and unnecessary ruling today on California’s landmark Presidential Tax Transparency law,” said Democratic State Sen. Mike McGuire in a statement. “This decision should not have been rushed. The judge got this one wrong.”