California Can’t Force Trump to Release Tax Returns, State Supreme Court Says

November 21, 2019 Updated: November 26, 2019

California’s Supreme Court ruled unanimously Nov. 21 that a law requiring presidential and gubernatorial candidates to release their tax returns in order to appear on the primary ballot there violates the state’s constitution.

Senate Bill 27, which was sponsored by Democrats and became chapter 121 of the California Elections Code after being signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on July 30, requires presidential candidates to file their income tax returns for the five most recent taxable years with the secretary of state in order to have their names listed on a primary election ballot. The secretary of state’s office would make redacted versions of the returns available to the public on its website within five days.

The bill lays out the same requirements for the candidates for governor but applies to primary elections, not general elections.

Tani Cantil-Sakauye
California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye delivers her State of the Judiciary address before a joint session of the Legislature at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., on March 23, 2015. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

The court said the law—the first of its kind in the nation and widely believed to be aimed squarely at President Donald Trump, who has refused to release his tax returns, but recently said he would do so before the 2020 election—was unconstitutional because its requirement for disclosure of tax returns to qualify for the ballot added exclusivity.

“This additional requirement … is in conflict with the Constitution’s specification of an inclusive open presidential primary ballot,” Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote in the 7–0 decision. “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.”

A U.S. judge had temporarily blocked the bill from becoming state law, in response to a different lawsuit; the high court ruled quickly because the deadline to file tax returns for getting on the primary ballot is next week.

The state’s Republican Party Chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson challenged the bill, saying it singled out Trump.

“Today’s ruling is a victory for every California voter,” Patterson said in a statement. “We are pleased that the courts saw through the Democrats’ petty partisan maneuvers and saw this law for what it is—an unconstitutional attempt to suppress Republican voter turnout.”

Jessica Millan Patterson
California Republican Party chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson listens as lawyers present their arguments for and against a recently approved state law requiring presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns in order to be on the state’s primary ballot, before the California Supreme Court in Sacramento on Nov. 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

The state defended the law, saying the release of tax returns is a simple way for voters to weigh candidates’ financial status.

California Democrats are one of several groups who are pushing for Trump’s tax returns to be made public. On Nov. 18, the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily stopped a lower court order requiring Trump’s accounting firm, Mazars USA, to turn over his tax returns to House Democrats amid their impeachment inquiry.

In a separate case, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ruled in favor of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office requiring Trump’s accountants to turn over tax returns.

Trump’s attorneys have submitted a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn that ruling. The justices haven’t said whether they would consider the appeal.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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