A majority of California Supreme Court justices appeared to side with Republicans who challenged a state law that would force President Donald Trump to release the last five years of his tax returns in order to get on the state’s 2020 primary ballot.
During oral arguments on Wednesday, several justices aggressively questioned an attorney representing Secretary of State Alex Padilla — the leader of the state’s elections processes tasked with implementing Senate Bill 27.
At the hearing, which lasted 55 minutes, the court largely echoed the concerns of former Gov. Jerry Brown, who vetoed a similar bill in 2017. In his veto message, Brown questioned whether the proposal was constitutional and worried that a law forcing the release of tax returns could set a “slippery slope precedent.”
“Where does it end? Do we get all high school report cards?” asked Justice Ming Chin, adding that SB 27 could pave the way for a “laundry list of requirements.”
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye added that she couldn’t find a single instance where state Democratic lawmakers considered a mandate in the California constitution directing the state to administer “open presidential primary whereby the candidates on the ballot are those found by the secretary of state to be recognized candidates throughout the nation or throughout California.”
“We have this arrogance and overreach of the California Legislature where they’re not even taking into consideration the state constitution,” said Jessica Patterson, the chairwoman of the state’s Republican Party who filed the lawsuit. “The fact the Legislature completely ignored that and the governor signed it is troubling.”
An attorney representing the California GOP said the secretary of state has no right to restrict candidates from getting on the ballot once they are deemed “recognized.”
Jay Russell, who represented Padilla in court, countered that the Legislature had near-absolute authority to enact laws about how the secretary of state can administer the primary election. He claimed the law forcing candidates to release tax returns to get on the ballot is “akin to a procedural function like a filing fee.”
“Well, it’s plenary until the constitution speaks,” Cantil-Sakauye replied.
“If we cannot be persuaded by your plenary power argument, do you have an alternative argument?” asked Justice Goodwin Liu.
Joshua Groban, whom Brown appointed to the court, was the fourth justice who aggressively questioned the merits of the bill, which suggests that a majority of judges will strike down the law.
Patterson added that she “feels good” about her chances of winning the case. Republicans fear their voters won’t show up to the polls if Trump is not at the top of the ticket.
Under the state’s primary system, the two highest vote-getters could both be Democrats, which would prevent a Republican from advancing to the general election in down-ballot races.
If California loses its court fight, it could still appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it will also be unlikely to receive approval to implement the new law.
In September, a federal judge in Sacramento approved the Trump campaign’s request to halt SB 27. Padilla announced shortly thereafter that the state would appeal the decision.
Under the law that has temporarily been struck down, candidates running for president must submit their tax returns by Nov. 26 in order to appear on the primary ballot, leaving little time for the case to be heard. Patterson urged the Supreme Court to release a ruling ahead of that November deadline, though the court has up to 90 days to reach a decision.
The California Supreme Court’s decision, which should be released in the coming weeks, could discourage several other states that are considering similar legislation.
Ten states had similar bills to California’s at the time Gov. Gavin Newsom signed it. Those proposals from other states would have 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.