California Supreme Court Strikes Down Tax Return Disclosure Law
The California Supreme Court has struck down a state law purporting to require a candidate for President to release their tax returns,
The California Supreme Court has struck down a state law requiring Presidential candidates to release their tax returns in order to appear on the ballot:
For years, Democrats have tried to force President Trump to disclose his tax returns, and Trump has resisted. The California Legislature, aiming at the president, passed a law this year to try to force Trump’s hand.
On a party-line vote, lawmakers approved a bill to require presidential candidates to disclose five years of tax returns in order to appear on the state’s primary ballot, the first such law in the nation.
It did not survive even six months.
California’s highest court decided Thursday that the Legislature went too far. Though legislators and analysts considered early on whether the requirement might conflict with federal law, the California Supreme Court determined it was the state’s own Constitution that barred such a condition.
Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, writing for the court, said the Legislature lacked the authority to create the “unenforceable” requirement. The decision by the seven-member court — which now has a majority of Democrat-appointed justices — was unanimous.
The case was the latest clash between Trump and California. The state has gone to court to challenge the president repeatedly on abortion rights, immigration and other matters, and Trump, in turn, has sued the state and tried to prevent it from enacting laws that counter his policies.
His victory Thursday, in a challenge brought by the state Republican Party and its chairwoman, was decisive. California’s top court has the final say on matters of state law.
“The Legislature may well be correct that a presidential candidate’s income tax returns could provide California voters with important information,” Cantil-Sakauye wrote.
But because the state Constitution requires inclusive, open presidential primary elections, Trump may withhold his returns and voters will have to decide whether the lack of disclosure has “consequences at the ballot box,” she wrote.
During a hearing this month, Cantil-Sakauye noted that legislators and analysts working on the bill apparently failed to even consider the section of the state Constitution that makes the primary ballot accessible to all “recognized” presidential candidates.
Republican leaders were jubilant. They denounced Democrats for failing to address “real issues” like power shutdowns, homelessness and the lack of affordable housing and for instead pursuing “bad legislation.”
The requirement overturned Thursday “interferes with our elections, is unconstitutional, a waste of taxpayer money, and a direct attack on democracy,” said state Senate Minority Leader Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield).
Democrats remained defiant. Jesse Melgar, a spokesman for Gov. Gavin Newsom, who signed the bill into law, said California would “continue to fight against the self-dealing, conflicts of interest and blatant corruption that have pervaded the Trump presidency.”
Even though California’s effort to force Trump’s disclosure has failed, “Congress and other states can and should take action to require presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns,” Melgar said.
The law would have required all presidential primary candidates to submit their income tax filings by Tuesday to secure a spot on California’s March 3 presidential primary ballot. State election officials were required to post the financial documents online, with certain private information redacted.
A portion of the new law that requires candidates for governor to release their tax returns before the statewide primary, beginning in 2022, was not challenged and remains in effect.
This lawsuit was one of two that were filed in the weeks after the California legislature passed the law requiring candidates for President and Governor to release their tax returns. The first was this case, which was effectively a direct appeal to the California Supreme Court in a lawsuit filed by the state Republican Party. The second was a Federal lawsuit filed by Trump and his campaign. In the Federal lawsuit, the U.S. District Court Judge assigned to the case ruled that the ballot access requirement violated the Federal Constitution because it added to the requirements that a candidate must meet in order to serve as President set forth in which can be found at Article II, Section 2 Clause 4, In that decision, the Court essentially adopted the argument I’ve made with regard to laws similar to the one that passed in California — see here, here, and here — that the law was similar to a term limit law that the Supreme Court had struck down in US Term Limits v. Thornton. In the wake of that ruling, California announced it would appeal the decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. However, given the outcome of the case before the state Supreme Court, it’s not clear that there’s any point to such an appeal.
Unlike the Federal Court, the California Supreme Court based its decision on its interpretation of a provision in the California Constitution that was passed via referendum back in 1972. That provision made it easier for presidential candidates to get on the state ballot and makes the primary ballot accessible to all “recognized” presidential candidates. Specifically, the referendum amended the Constitution to add Article II, section 5(c) which provides (emphasis added),
The Legislature shall provide for partisan elections for presidential candidates, and political party and party central committees, including an 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 for the office of President of the United States, and those whose names are placed on the ballot by petition, but excluding any candidate who has withdrawn by filing an affidavit of noncandidacy
Based no this, the Court stated the following:
Elections Code sections 6883 and 6884 purport to make the appearance of a “recognized” candidate for president on a primary ballot contingent on whether the candidate has made the disclosures specified by the Act. This additional requirement, however, is in conflict with the Constitution’s specification of an inclusive open presidential primary ballot.
The Legislature may well be correct that a presidential candidate’s income tax returns could provide California voters with important information. But article II, section 5(c) embeds in the state Constitution the principle that, 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.
[U]nder any reasonable interpretation of the “recognized” language within article II, section 5(c), a candidate’s failure to disclose tax returns to the Secretary of State would not establish that the candidate is not “recognized … throughout the nation or throughout California” as a candidate “for the office of President of the United States.”
The word “recognized” is susceptible to somewhat different meanings. (Compare, e.g., Black’s Law Dict. (4th ed. 1968) p. 1436, col. 2 [defining “recognized” as “[a]ctual and publicly known”] with Random House Dict. of the English Language (1973) p. 1199, col. 3 [defining “recognize” as, among other things, “to acknowledge or treat as valid”].) The repeated use of the word “throughout” within article II, section 5(c) suggests that the “recognized” language is concerned (although perhaps not exclusively) with a candidacy’s prominence or pervasiveness. (See Webster’s 3d New Internat. Dict. (1971) p. 2385, col. 1 [defining “throughout” as “in … every part of”].) If this meaning applies, it seems plain that whether a candidate has disclosed tax returns to the Secretary of State cannot, by itself, be determinative of whether the candidate is “recognized.” Such disclosure has, at most, a highly attenuated relationship to public awareness of a candidacy throughout the nation or California—or, for that matter, to whether someone is an “[a]ctual” candidate for the presidency. (Black’s Law Dict., at p. 1436, col. 2.)
The disjunctive “throughout the nation or throughout California” language in article II, section 5(c) also suggests that nondisclosure of tax returns under the Act could not supply a basis for keeping a presidential candidate off the primary ballot even if the “recognized” phrasing were to be construed as being to some extent concerned with a candidacy’s validity. For even in that case, a failure to comply with the Act’s tax return disclosure requirement would establish only that someone is not “recognized,” i.e., not regarded as valid, as a presidential candidate in or by California. It would not mean that the candidate is not “recognized … throughout the nation,” because a failure to satisfy this requirement would not make a candidacy invalid throughout the nation.
Generally speaking, the next step from here would be the U.S. Supreme Court. However, because this ruling is based on an interpretation of the California Constitution rather than the Federal Constitution, it is incredibly unlikely that the Justices would take the case. This is because, generally speaking, a state Supreme Court is seen as the best arbiter of the meaning of state law and the state Constitution. In such cases, the Court will only take such cases if they raise issues of Federal law, but that is not the case here. Therefore, I don’t expect an appeal, if it were undertaken, would even be accepted by the Court
This ruling also seems to make any appeal of the aforementioned Federal District Court ruling moot. Even if the Supreme Court were to accept the case, which is unlikely, any ruling would be meaningless since the law is already barred by the California Constitution. Therefore, this would appear to be the end of the road for the California law. As I’ve said before, this is the correct outcome. Absent an amendment to the Federal Constitution, there is no valid way to force candidates for Federal office to release their tax returns or any other information.
Here’s the opinion: