Capitol Alert

California sued over new law targeting Trump’s tax returns ahead of 2020 election

A conservative group is suing California over a new law Gov. Gavin Newsom signed last week that would force President Donald Trump to release the last five years of his tax returns in order to get his name on the state’s 2020 primary ballot.

Trump has yet to weigh in on the issue, though his personal attorney Jay Sekulow told the New York Times that “the state of California’s attempt to circumvent the Constitution will be answered in court.”

Judicial Watch filed a 13-page complaint on Thursday in the Eastern District of California in Sacramento. On Monday, it announced it is seeking an injunction on behalf of four California voters — two registered Republicans, one Independent and one Democrat — to stop the new law.

“We have a general concern that is broader than the concern of a particular candidate,” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch. “This is part of a pattern of government officials abusing their powers to harass President Trump.”

Fitton said Judicial Watch has not coordinated its legal efforts with Trump or his campaign. He’s not sure if the president will file a separate lawsuit but said Trump has standing to do so because, as a candidate, “he has certain claims that the voters don’t have.”

Judicial Watch argues in its lawsuit that the U.S. Constitution establishes a firm set of eligibility requirements related to age and citizenship and that California’s law violates voters’ “First Amendment right to associate with candidates who choose to preserve their privacy by declining to release their tax returns.”

In a signing statement, Newsom said the Constitution “grants states the authority to determine how their electors are chosen, and California is well within its constitutional right to include this requirement.”

Secretary of State Alex Padilla endorsed the bill and must now defend it in court. His office is charged with administering Senate Bill 27 and posting candidates’ tax returns online. He told The Sacramento Bee in March that “candidates who are serious about holding the highest office in the nation should be transparent about their personal financial interests. ... I support SB 27 which will write this vital norm of our democracy into state law.”

Legal experts say Judicial Watch has a compelling case.

Jessica Levinson, a professor Loyola Law School, said the outcome will largely depend on which court hears the case first.

“This is a strong challenge,” Levinson said of the group’s chances of securing an injunction to stop the new law from taking immediate effect. “This is a gray area. Nobody has ever said that this is permissible, and nobody’s ever said it’s not OK. I think it’s a close call because it does in some ways look like more of a requirement (for office) than a ballot access rule. This is really close to the line and potentially over it.”

Newsom’s Democratic predecessor, Gov. Jerry Brown, vetoed a similar proposal in 2017, warning it “may not be constitutional” and could establish a “slippery slope” precedent.

“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?”

Tim Murtaugh, director of communications for the president’s 2020 campaign, cited Brown’s decision as evidence the state’s new law will not hold up in court.

“There are very good reasons why the very liberal Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed this bill two years ago — it’s unconstitutional and it opens up the possibility for states to load up more requirements on candidates in future elections,” Murtaugh said in a statement.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Heraldsburg, authored Senate Bill 27, dubbed the “Presidential Tax Transparency and Accountability Act.” He called Trump a “catalyst” for the legislation but said the president is not the only person who will be affected. The law also applies to future gubernatorial candidates and 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, three of whom would not presently qualify for the state ballot under the new law.

“This is a fight worth having in the courts, and we look forward to taking the Trump administration head on because we believe it’s a clear case,” McGuire said. “We’re following through with the will of the American people.”

Despite Democrats’ efforts to promote the bill as a measure of transparency, Levinson said it’s clear their intent was to go after Trump.

“It looks like exactly what it is, which is a political ploy to make this look bipartisan when we all know what this is about,” she said. “This is about the fact that President Trump ran for office, broke norms by not releasing his tax returns and California doesn’t like that.”

The bill passed on a party-line vote in both chambers of the Legislature.

“Democrat leadership in this state continues to put partisan politics first — a fact made obvious by Gov. Newsom’s insistence here to waste time and taxpayer money to fight a losing legal battle,” said a statement from Jessica Patterson, chairwoman of the California Republican Party.

Records from the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Election Legislation Database show 10 other states have bills still alive this year that would require presidential candidates to disclose their tax information in order to get their name on the state’s ballot. Bills from five states — Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Washington — have already cleared one chamber this year.

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Bryan Anderson is a political reporter for The Bee. He covers the California Legislature and reports on wildfires and transportation. He also hosts The Bee’s “California Nation” podcast.