California Trying to Force Trump to Release His Tax Returns

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on May 06, 2019

Donald Trump was the first major party presidential candidate who declined to make his tax returns public since 1976. The president still hasn't released his tax returns, and failure to do so may keep him off the 2020 ballot in California.

The California State Senate voted 27-10 to require presidential candidates to release five years of income tax returns in order to appear on the primary ballot. The proposed bill isn't law yet, but would it even be constitutional if it does?

Informed, Educated Choices

SB-27, or the Presidential Tax Transparency and Accountability Act, would require "a candidate for President, in order to have the candidate’s name placed upon a primary election ballot, to file the candidate's income tax returns for the 5 most recent taxable years with the Secretary of State, as specified." Redacted versions, removing personal information, would then be made public on the Secretary of State's website.

"The Legislature finds and declares that the State of California has a strong interest in ensuring that its voters make informed, educated choices in the voting booth," the bill declares. "The Legislature also finds and declares that a Presidential candidate's income tax returns provide voters with essential information regarding the candidate's potential conflicts of interest, business dealings, financial status, and charitable donations. The information in tax returns therefore helps voters to make a more informed decision."

A Slippery Slope

This is not the first time the California legislature has tried to force Trump's hand on his tax returns. Former Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill in 2017, calling it a "'slippery slope' precedent":

"While I recognize the political attractiveness -- even the merits -- of getting President Trump's tax returns, I worry about the political perils of individual states seeking to regulate presidential elections in this manner ... First, it may not be constitutional. Second, it sets a 'slippery slope' precedent. 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?"

Current Governor Gavin Newsome hasn't announced where his office stands on this bill, and spokesperson Brian Ferguson told the AP "it would be evaluated on its own merits."

And California isn't the only state targeting the president's tax returns. Mother Jones reports similar bills have been introduced in Illinois, New Jersey, and Washington. Ballot access laws are set at the state level, and determine whether a candidate or party will appear on an election ballot. The limits of these regulations, at least as they pertain to requiring tax disclosures, haven't been legally tested. But the Supreme Court has pushed back on states attempting to limit ballot access before, and it could "hold that state legislators cannot require tax returns of presidential candidates even given state legislatures' much greater power over presidential elections," according to U.C. Irvine law professor Rick Hasen.

But first, California's law (and those in other states) must first pass, be enacted, and enforced before we find out.

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