In a win for President Trump, presidential candidates will not have to disclose their tax returns to appear on California’s March primary ballot, if a tentative federal court ruling is made final.
United States District Judge Morrison C. England, Jr. on Thursday tentatively granted all five plaintiffs motions for preliminary injunction on SB 27, meaning presidential candidates will not have to disclose their tax returns to appear on California’s March primary ballot.
Senate Bill 27 was passed by the California Legislature and recently signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom, aimed at forcing President Donald Trump to release five years of his tax returns if he wants to be on the state’s March 3, 2020 Primary Election Ballot.
Five different plaintiffs’ lawyers, including President Trump’s lawyers, argued in the U.S. District Court in Sacramento Thursday that the new law was unconstitutional because the requirements for candidates running for president are outlined in the U.S. Constitution, and therefore the jurisdiction of the federal government.
“The Act is not a good-faith attempt to educate voters, but is rather an unconstitutional attempt to force the policy assessment of the California State Legislature that candidates who do not disclose their personal tax returns are not fit to be President onto California voters,” the Melendez et alia lawsuits states. “Senator Mike McGuire, one of the Act’s co-sponsors in the California Senate, has repeatedly confirmed that the Act was primarily intended as a political attack against President Trump. He recently stated, ‘We believe that President Trump, if he truly doesn’t have anything to hide, should step up and release his tax returns.’”
Attorneys for the California Attorney General argued that states already have different requirements for primary elections, and California was within its legal right to add this requirement of presidential candidates.
The judge asked attorneys to explain if California’s law is preempted by federal law. He and attorneys discussed the Ethics in Government Act (EIGA), which requires mandatory, public disclosure of financial and employment history of public officials and their immediate families. Judge England also expressed doubt about SB 27’s essentially ignoring the U.S. Constitution qualifications clause.
Plaintiffs Attorneys and Judge England argued that candidates would have to navigate a “hodgepodge” of 50 different sets of election rules, if in fact states were allowed to do so.
Judge England also questioned the timing of the passage and signing of SB 27, and why it was done after President Trump was in office. Because the EIGA disclosure is due in May, he also wondered if California hadn’t moved its primary election up to March, would it still be an issue. The AG attorneys said it would not have mattered.
Attorney Thomas McCarthy, representing President Trump and his campaign, said the requirement under SB 27 is a “severe burden” to all candidates, as well as those considering running for office. McCarthy noted that former California Gov. Jerry Brown had vetoed a 2017 version of the same bill, calling it a bad precedent.
California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the 2017 previous bill, SB 149, acknowledging that passage of this bill would have set a dangerous precedent for potential partisan mischief, creating “an ever-escalating set of different state requirements for presidential candidates.” Brown also said it “may be unconstitutional” to require President Trump and future presidential candidates to disclose their income tax returns in advance of the 2020 presidential election. “Today we require tax returns, but what would be next?” Brown wrote in his veto message. “Five years of health records? A certified birth certificate? High school report cards? And will these requirements vary depending on which political party is in power?”
Judge England noted that former Gov. Jerry Brown also did not publicly disclose his tax information as a Presidential or Gubernatorial candidate.
Precedents for Declining to Disclose
State AG Attorneys said Trump was the motivation for the bill because he broke decades of “tradition” of handing over tax returns. Judge England said he remembered Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jerry Brown and even Ralph Nader did not disclose their personal tax returns when they ran for President.
The attorneys from the Attorney General’s office said, “None of the other candidates were serious contenders.”
The judge interrupted them saying that the candidates he named were indeed serious contenders, and noted that Jerry Brown, who ran for President three times, was considered a serious contender in 1992.
“We’ve come around to the real issue,” Judge England said, “President Trump did not disclose his tax returns.”
President Trump’s attorneys specifically addressed the 2017 veto from Brown, as well as the California Legislative Counsel’s warning to the Legislature that the bill was unconstitutional. The State AG attorneys said because the warning was for the 2017 bill, it was not part of the current legislative history and therefore irrelevant.
Notably, attorney McCarthy said tax returns are intensely private documents, which may have detailed information about the taxpayer’s family, health, and other personal issues. “A violation of that privacy is harmful,” McCarthy said.
Attorney Harmeet Dhillon representing the California Republican Party, Republican National Committee, Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore), and several additional voters, warned that the down-ticket candidates would be impacted by keeping this president off of the Primary Election ballot. “To not have our standard bearers to not appear on the top of the ballot will have more Democrats on the ballot,” Dhillon told the Globe. “This ruling will allow California Republicans to be more confident their candidates are on the ballot.”
Attorney McCarthy said the EIGA requirement of disclosure is preemption of state law and dictates that this is all this president and other candidates must adhere to. Preemption supersedes – it means what it means.
Judge England issued a tentative ruling granting preliminary injunction in favor of plaintiffs (all five). He told both sides they could prepare their appeals for the appellate court. The judge will issue his written decision by October 1, 2019.
Lawyers after the hearing said to expect the judge to focus on the qualifications clause, ethics and accountability, as well as EIGA.
The state AG attorneys are expected to appeal the decision. Attorneys for President Trump, and other Republicans and voters said they will stand with Judge England’s ruling.
“Today was a clear victory for the First Amendment, the rule of law, and for all citizens who want to cast their vote for the qualified presidential candidate of their choice without malicious interference from state legislatures such as California’s that are so obsessed with President Trump that if they can’t beat him fair and square, they’ll cheat to keep him off the ballot, even at the expense of disenfranchising millions of Americans,” Attorney Harmeet Dhillon said following the hearing. “California is sure to waste more taxpayer dollars appealing this very sensible ruling, but for today, the Constitution and President Trump won.”
Melendez v. Newsom
Donald J. Trump for President, Inc. v. Padilla
Patterson v. Padilla
Griffin v. Padilla
Koenig v. Newsom
Lykins v. Padilla
De La Fuente v. Padilla
(courtesy of Scott Lay, Around the Capitol)