The battle to force Donald Trump to release his tax returns took a new turn today as California governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation making disclosure of five years of income-tax filings a condition for appearing on the state’s presidential-primary ballot, beginning next year. As the Los Angeles Times reports, it’s not the first time the legislature passed a bill on this subject, but it’s the first time it has become law:
[Jerry] Brown vetoed a similar bill in 2017, arguing it was unlikely to pass constitutional muster and would set a bad precedent.
“Today we require tax returns, but what would be next?” Brown wrote in his veto message. “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?”
But the latest bill passed on a strict party-line vote, and Newsom signed it on the grounds that because of its size and stature, California had a “special responsibility to require this information of presidential and gubernatorial candidates” (it will apply to candidates for Newsom’s own job after 2024).
The tax-return requirement would not apply to the 2020 general election, since the political parties have the exclusive right to determine access to that ballot. And its practical effect on Trump might be limited at best. He could circumvent the law by running as a write-in candidate, and even with that burden he would not have any trouble dispatching either his current nomination opponent, William Weld, or possible challenger Mark (Appalachian Trail) Sanford.
As Brown indicated, there are constitutional issues with the law:
Newsom’s signature on SB 27 sets the stage for a nationally watched legal debate over a state’s power to decide which names appear on its presidential ballot.
“I’m sure it’ll be challenged, but I have no confidence in predicting what the courts are going to do,” said Richard L. Hasen, a UC Irvine election law professor.
Team Trump has plenty of confidence about the constitutionality of the bill, as Politico reports:
Trump campaign official Tim Murtaugh said in an email that the law was unconstitutional — and he echoed Brown’s warning that states could now be inspired to try and pile on additional requirements like forcing candidates to release health records.
“The Constitution is clear on the qualifications for someone to serve as president and states cannot add additional requirements on their own,” Murtaugh said. “The bill also violates the First Amendment right of association since California can’t tell political parties which candidates their members can or cannot vote for in a primary election.”
If the law is upheld quickly, it could spur imitations in other Democratic-controlled states (Trump is already suing New York to stop implementation of its parallel law making his state tax returns available). At present, its main effect may be to give Trump and his hirelings a fresh excuse to bash a state they love to hate as some sort of hippie hellscape:
Newsom’s signature could push his already-contentious relationship with Trump into volatile new territory — potentially imperiling California’s relationship with Washington.
I believe that train has already noisily left the station in a cloud of smoke.