California Supreme Court Strikes Down Law Requiring Release of Trump Taxes

President Trump talks to journalists as he departs the White House on Sept. 16, 2019. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

In a unanimous decision, the California Supreme Court Thursday struck down a law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom requiring presidential candidates to release their five most recent income tax returns by Nov. 26 in order to appear on the March 2020 primary ballot.

"This additional requirement, however, is in conflict with the Constitution’s specification of an inclusive open presidential primary ballot," Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote for the majority.

"The Legislature may well be correct that a presidential candidate’s income tax returns could provide California voters with important information," the chief justice wrote, adding that the requirement would impinge on voters' choices and rights to decide which otherwise-qualified candidates they prefer.

Jessica Millan Patterson, chair of the California Republican Party who filed the lawsuit challenging SB 27, called the decision a warning to Democrats in Sacramento.

"I think it's very clear the arrogance and the overreach of California Democrats right now has no bounds," Patterson told KQED.

She added that "if it is important to you that a candidate releases their tax returns and doesn't, don't vote for that candidate."

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The law, SB 27, known as the California Presidential Tax Transparency and Accountability Act, was clearly aimed at forcing President Trump to release his taxes ahead of the November 2020 election.

Trump and the Republican Party immediately sued in federal court.

"The issue of whether the President should release his federal tax returns was litigated in the 2016 election and the American people spoke," Jay Sekulow, one of the president's attorneys, said in a written statement after the lawsuit was filed.

The law was challenged in state court by several parties, including Jessica Millan Patterson who chairs the California Republican Party.

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When Gov. Newsom signed the bill, he said: "States have a legal and moral duty to do everything in their power to ensure leaders seeking the highest offices meet minimal standards, and to restore public confidence. The disclosure required by this bill will shed light on conflicts of interest, self-dealing, or influence from domestic and foreign business interest."

But two years earlier, former Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill, calling the requirement to release income taxes "a slippery slope," adding that he questioned whether it was constitutional.

Brown turned out to be right.

In fact, the Supreme Court on Thursday quoted from Brown's veto message, including this passage: "Today we require tax returns, but what would be next? Five years of health records? A certified birth certificate? High school report cards?"

Thursday's ruling was the second legal setback for SB 27. Last month, a federal court judge in Sacramento blocked the law from being implemented, ruling it violated legal protections spelled out in the U.S. Constitution, including freedom of speech and the right to due process under the law.

The law also required gubernatorial candidates to release their income taxes, but that part would not have applied until 2022, when the next election for California governor will be held.