Capitol Alert

Judge halts California law forcing Trump to release tax returns

President Donald Trump won’t have to release his tax returns for California voters to see his name on their ballots next year, at least not yet.

A federal judge on Thursday temporarily suspended a new California law that was intended to force Trump to release five years of tax returns ahead of the state’s March 3, 2020 primary.

Trump’s lawyers argued in the U.S. District Court in Sacramento that the law was unconstitutional because the federal government has jurisdiction over eligibility requirements for candidates running for president.

State attorneys are expected to appeal the decision from Judge Morrison England, and the outcome could play a key role in whether other states decide to advance similar legislation. A separate case challenging California’s law is being considered in the state Supreme Court.

“We are encouraged that the federal court has tentatively concluded that a preliminary injunction should be granted,” said a statement from Jay Sekulow, an attorney representing the Trump campaign. “We look forward to the court’s written order. It remains our position that the law is unconstitutional because states are not permitted to add additional requirements for candidates for president, and that the law violated citizens’ 1st Amendment right of association.”

Attorneys representing California argued the state has the administrative authority to determine ballot access rules. They also said the public has a strong interest in seeing the president’s tax information, which Democrats believe could reveal troublesome business dealings.

England announced his decision in court and will release a formal written injunction by Oct. 1. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the law in July.

Jesse Melgar, a spokesman for Newsom, said in a statement that “states have a legal and moral duty to restore public confidence in government and ensure leaders seeking the highest offices meet minimal standards. The disclosure required by this law will shed light on conflicts of interest, self-dealing, or influence from domestic and foreign business interests.”

Under the temporary injunction, Secretary of State Alex Padilla is not allowed to implement the new law.

“We remain firm in our belief that SB 27 is constitutional and provides invaluable transparency for voters as they decide who will hold the most powerful office in the United States,” Padilla said in a statement. “We will determine our next course of action after the judge issues his written ruling.”

England’s decision also applied to four other lawsuits challenging the California law.

Attorney Harmeet Dhillon sued the state on behalf of the California Republican Party, Republican National Committee, Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore and multiple voters. A conservative group called Judicial Watch, 2020 presidential candidate Rocky De La Fuente and another voter also challenged California’s law.

Dhillon met with Trump earlier this week when he visited the state for fundraisers. She said they discussed the ongoing lawsuit.

“The president was aware of the lawsuit and confident of victory,” Dhillon said. “The case law was very much on our side.”

At the hearing, England repeatedly questioned the timing of the law, saying lawmakers could have passed a bill before Trump was sworn into office, noting that former Gov. Jerry Brown did not publicly disclose his tax information as a candidate.

Attorneys representing California said Trump motivated the bill because he broke with decades of precedent by refusing to disclose his tax returns. They added, “None of the other candidates were serious contenders.”

England immediately interrupted, and attorneys from Trump’s campaign cited a veto from Brown himself in 2017 that claimed the law could set a “slippery slope” precedent and “may not be constitutional.”

England also questioned whether the federal law called the Ethics In Government Act, prevents states like California from imposing additional rules.

His written ruling could discourage several other states that are considering similar legislation.

At the time Newsom signed the law, 10 states had bills that would’ve forced Trump to release anywhere from one year to 10 years of tax returns in order to get on the primary ballot. California’s law called for presidential and gubernatorial candidates to disclose five years of tax information.

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

Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton called California’s law an “obvious assault on President Trump.” Melendez praised the court’s decision, saying it would prevent other states from passing similar ballot requirements.

“It sends a message to other states who may be contemplating doing something similar: States cannot arbitrarily decide what qualifications a person must meet in order to make it onto the state’s primary ballot,” Melendez said.

The ruling is welcome news for California’s Republican Party, which feared GOP voters wouldn’t vote if Trump does not appear on 2020 ballots. Under the state’s top-two primary system, the two highest vote-getters advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.

Defenders of the law argued in court that it was “even-handed,” given it applied to all presidential and gubernatorial candidates, regardless of party. Of the 12 highest-polling Democratic presidential candidates, three would not currently qualify for a spot on California’s ballot. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and venture capitalist Andrew Yang have not yet disclosed their tax information.

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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.
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