California tax return mandate for presidential candidates becomes law, riling Trump campaign

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President Donald Trump will be barred from appearing on the primary ballot next March in California without releasing his tax returns under a new and controversial state law whose author, a local legislator, predicts the tax-return mandate will survive an expected court challenge.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law Tuesday a bill from Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, that requires presidential and gubernatorial candidates to file the last five years of income tax returns with the California Secretary of State’s office in order to appear on primary ballots.

The move instantly sets up a legal battle over the mechanics and legality of California imposing a mandate affecting a national electoral process.

U.S. presidential candidates have for decades voluntarily released personal tax information, though they have not been required to do so.

Trump has refused to divulge details of his income, but while he has cited an ongoing federal examination for his reticence, being the subject of an IRS audit does not preclude individuals from divulging such information.

While Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns catalyzed Senate Bill 27, McGuire said the issue was bigger than one person, describing his bill as an attempt to enshrine a standard of transparency so far adhered to by almost everyone who has sought the White House.

“Has it created some uncomfortable situations in presidential races? Hell yeah,” McGuire said. “But they’ve also known that there is a greater good, and that greater good is transparency and national security.”

California recently moved up its primary election, which in 2020 will be held March 3. States lawmakers can govern the time, place and manner of primary elections, but that authority doesn’t extend to general elections.

David Levine, a law professor at UC Hastings, said he thought McGuire’s bill had a “good shot” of withstanding any potential legal challenging because it was narrowly worded to affect the primary election. Levine likened the requirement to a mandatory filing fee for candidates.

“I think this is a legitimate exercise of state power,” Levine said.

Jessica Levinson, a law professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, said the question of the new law’s legality would hinge on whether it is seen by courts as a new requirement for candidacy, which would not be allowed, or whether it was a new “ballot access rule,” which would be legal.

The difference right now is “a line drawn in the sand on a windy day” because of the lack of legal precedent, she said.

“Honestly, legally speaking, there’s a good chance that this will be overturned,” she said.

Trump’s campaign certainly hopes that’s the case. Tim Murtaugh, spokesman for the president’s reelection campaign, cited a fleeting ideological alliance with former California Gov. Jerry Brown, who rejected similar legislation in 2017.

“There are very good reasons why the very liberal Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed this bill two years ago — it’s unconstitutional and it opens up the possibility for states to load up more requirements on candidates in future elections,” Murtaugh said in a statement. “What’s next, five years of health records?”

That’s almost a verbatim quote of Brown’s veto letter: “Today we require tax returns, but what would be next? 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?”

A lawsuit might also raise concerns about freedom of association related to a political party’s ability to choose its candidates, a constitutional right rooted in the First Amendment.

In a news release announcing he’d signed the bill, Newsom, who released several years of tax returns prior to his election and who regularly butts heads with Trump, included two opinions from scholars who believe the bill passes constitutional muster.

“These are extraordinary times and 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,” Newsom said in a statement. “The disclosure required by this bill will shed light on conflicts of interest, self-dealing, or influence from domestic and foreign business interest.”

Levine, the Hastings law professor, noted that Trump doesn’t need California’s delegates to secure the GOP nomination because “if he has a pulse, if he is alive, he is going to be the Republican candidate for president.”

“This really only would have bite if a large number of states were to make the same demand on candidates,” Levine said.

And given that California hasn’t gone red in a presidential election since George H. W. Bush’s defeat of Michael Dukakis in 1988 and that Hillary Clinton carried the state handily in 2016, Trump is unlikely to bank on the liberal bastion’s 55 electoral votes heading his way in November 2020.

McGuire declined to discuss the potential electoral impacts of his bill on the 2020 election, saying he would “leave the political commentary to the pundits.” He said his emphasis was on ensuring transparency in California and voiced confidence in the law’s prospects in court.

“I believe that President Trump will advance a legal challenge to this law, and I believe President Trump will lose in court,” McGuire said.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com.

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