Capitol Alert

‘Totally unconstitutional.’ Trump sues California over new law targeting his tax returns

President Donald Trump, the California Republican Party, and the national GOP joined together Tuesday to sue California over a new tax-return law Gov. Gavin Newsom signed last week.

The law requires Trump and other presidential candidates to release the last five years of their tax returns to get their names on the state’s 2020 primary ballot.

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.

Trump cited Brown’s veto in a tweet Tuesday night and declared California’s new law “totally unconstitutional.”

“Former Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the same bill in that it was ridiculous and totally unconstitutional,” Trump wrote. “Just more of the record setting Presidential Harassment.”

Trump’s personal attorney, Jay Sekulow, criticized “California’s attempt to circumvent the constitution.”

“Today we have taken decisive action in federal court challenging California’s attempt to circumvent the U.S. Constitution,” Sekulow said in a statement. “The issue of whether the president should release his federal tax returns was litigated in the 2016 election and the American people spoke. The effort to deny California voters the opportunity to cast a ballot for President Trump in 2020 will clearly fail. Legal scholars from across the political spectrum have roundly condemned this flagrantly illegal statute. We are confident the courts will as well.”

Trump’s campaign filed its 15-page complaint in the U.S. Eastern District of California. Republican state lawmakers, the California Republican Party, and the Republican National Committee filed a similar 26-page lawsuit on Tuesday seeking an injunction.

The latest legal challenges announced Tuesday come days after the conservative group Judicial Watch filed for an injunction to stop the law in its tracks. Rocky de La Fuente, a California native and 2020 Republican presidential candidate, filed a similar complaint beforehand.

Trump argues in his lawsuit that the U.S. Constitution establishes a firm set of eligibility requirements related to age and citizenship. According to the lawsuit, “These are the exclusive qualifications for federal office.”

The complaint from the Trump campaign filed Tuesday also calls the new law “a partisan effort” that is part of “the Democrats’ ongoing crusade to obtain the president’s federal tax returns in the hopes of finding something they can use to harm him politically.”

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

California Republican Party Chairwoman Jessica Patterson worries keeping Trump off the ballot would diminish GOP turnout in down-ballot races. Under the state’s open primary system, the two highest vote getters, regardless of party, advance to the general election. This means two Democrats could compete if a Republican doesn’t capture enough votes in the primary.

“By attempting to remove those top ticket candidates, Governor Newsom and the Democratic Legislature who adopted this measure are hoping to keep Republicans home,” Patterson said in a statement. “Their goal is to ensure Democrat candidates qualify in California’s ‘top two’ open primary system – and keep more Republicans off the general election ballot in November. It’s unconscionable to use these political tricks and underhanded tactics to influence elections.”

California will argue in court that it has administrative jurisdiction over its state ballots.

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.”

Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who will defend California in court, said on Monday that the state had not yet been served with a complaint. While he declined to comment on the specifics of pending cases, he said he’d be ready for the lawsuit

“We’ll be ready to do what we need to do to defend California’s law and statutes,” Becerra said.

Secretary of State Alex Padilla is charged with implementing the new law and publishing candidates’ tax returns online. He endorsed the bill and is also listed on Trump’s lawsuit.

“Voters deserve to know if candidates for the highest office in the United States — who will make economic and military decisions with global repercussions — have any possible financial conflicts of interest,” Padilla said in a statement. “SB 27 will empower California voters to make their own, informed choices about which candidate can best serve our state and our nation.”

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

“This is a strong challenge,” Levinson said. “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.”

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.

“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?”

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Heraldsburg, wrote Senate Bill 27, dubbed the “Presidential Tax Transparency and Accountability Act.” He said California will prevail over Trump’s legal challenge.

“Releasing of tax returns has never been a big deal, up until now,” McGuire said in a statement. “All Presidents have done it for 40 years. It comes as no surprise that President Trump would freak out at the prospect of presidential transparency and accountability, but he will need to get used to it. Welcome to the rule of law, Mr. President.”

McGuire has previously called Trump a “catalyst” for the legislation but said the president is not the only person who will be affected. Three Democratic presidential candidates — former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and venture capitalist Andrew Yang — would not presently qualify for the state ballot under the new law because they haven’t released their tax information.

Republicans in Trump’s orbit have said California is engaging in election interference.

Kimberly Guilfoyle, who was married to Newsom in the early-2000s and is now dating the president’s son, wrote in a tweet last week, “CA is losing it! One party control is allowing their political agenda to be controlled by crazed activists who don’t have the interests of the state in mind.”

Donald Trump's complaint over CA tax filing law

The lawsuit will have a major impact across the country ahead of the 2020 election.

Ten 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, according to records from the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Election Legislation Database. Bills from five states — Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Washington — have already cleared one chamber this year.

This story was updated at 9 p.m. Aug. 6 to reflect President Trump’s comments on Twitter.

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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.