SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California’s first-in-the-nation law requiring presidential primary candidates to release their tax returns or be kept off the ballot was challenged in federal court Tuesday by President Donald Trump, the man who inspired its passage and whose attorneys argued that state Democratic leaders had overstepped their constitutional authority.
The lawsuit, filed in Sacramento, came one week after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the legislation. Two other legal challenges preceded the one by Trump and his 2020 reelection campaign, and all of the lawsuits have struck a similar theme by insisting California cannot impose limits on ballot access for presidential hopefuls.
“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, an attorney for Trump, said in a written statement. “The effort to deny California voters the opportunity to cast a ballot for President Trump in 2020 will clearly fail.”
The president has steadfastly refused to offer the public a glimpse of his annual income tax filings with the Internal Revenue Service, frequently insisting —without any proof —that he cannot do so while the returns were the subject of an IRS audit. Most of the Democrats now vying for their party’s nomination to challenge Trump next fall have already released some of their tax returns, though not all have met California’s standard of producing five years’ worth of information.
Senate Bill 27, which passed the California Legislature on a party-line vote last month, took effect as soon as Newsom, a Democrat, signed it. It imposes the tax disclosure rule on presidential and gubernatorial candidates, and stipulates that only the names of candidates who comply will be printed on the statewide primary ballot. Because the state has moved up its presidential primary to early March, the deadline for submitting the tax documents is in late November.
The 15-page court filing alleges five counts of illegal action by California officials in enacting the tax returns law. Trump’s attorneys contend a state can only issue “procedural regulations” governing its election for president. Even if the state did have a role, the attorneys wrote, California’s law “does not serve a compelling state interest and, in any event, is not narrowly tailored to that interest.”
Newsom, who provided access to his tax returns in the 2018 election and has routinely criticized the Republican president for his failure to do the same, said Tuesday that a lawsuit was unnecessary.
“There’s an easy fix Mr. President — release your tax returns as you promised during the campaign and follow the precedent of every president since 1973,” Newsom said on Twitter. The governor’s statement overlooks that President Gerald Ford refused to release his tax returns in 1976, though every other president has, until Trump.
Republican Party officials were expected to quickly join Trump in the legal confrontation. Two other lawsuits have challenged the California law on similar grounds. One was filed Monday on behalf of a handful of state voters by the conservative-leaning group Judicial Watch. The first was filed last week by Roque “Rocky” De La Fuente, a California businessman who has run several low-profile campaigns for president.
Legal scholars have mixed opinions as to the constitutionality of Senate Bill 27. Some suggested that because state legislatures are given wide berth by the U.S. Constitution in choosing presidential electors, the law could be seen as a logical extension of that power. Others, however, said the law could be thrown out on the same grounds as previous efforts in other states to link a congressional incumbent’s ballot access to how many terms the person had already served in the House. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected such restrictions in a 1995 ruling.
Action on Trump’s legal challenge could be swift, when measured against other complex cases filed in the federal courts.
“It would not be surprising for such a case to make its way through the 9th Circuit and to the Supreme Court within a matter of months,” Richard L. Hasen, a University of California, Irvine election law professor, wrote last week.