SACRAMENTO – With a court ruling in tow that helps keep his finances secret, President Donald Trump lashed out Wednesday against California Democrats for attempting to give voters access to his tax returns before the March primary.
Trump celebrated a federal court’s decision to freeze a state law requiring presidential candidates to reveal their personal income taxes, calling California Gov. Gavin Newsom a “do nothing” and a “beauty.”
“Here’s what happened: Yesterday I won the case very convincingly,” Trump said during a joint press conference with Finland President Sauli Niinisto.
Trump’s boast came a day after U.S. District Judge Morrison England Jr. temporarily barred California from enforcing a law enacted to force the president to release his tax returns in order to appear on the state’s March primary ballot.
In a 24-page ruling, England cast Senate Bill 27 as a “trampling” of the standards for running for president laid out in the Constitution. He warned that the bill could “open the floodgates” and allow other states to enact “nakedly political” ballot access laws.
“The dangerous precedent set by this act, allowing the controlling party in any state’s legislature to add substantive requirements as a precondition to qualifying for the state’s presidential primary ballot, should concern all candidates alike, Republican, Democrat or otherwise. It certainly concerns the court,” England said in his order.
But California officials called the president’s victory claim premature and promised Wednesday to appeal England’s decision.
“States have a legal and moral duty to restore public confidence in government and ensure leaders seeking the highest offices meet minimal standards,” said Jesse Melgar, spokesperson for Gov. Newsom. “The disclosure required by SB 27 will shed light on conflicts of interest, self-dealing, or influence from domestic and foreign business interests.”
The sides are fighting over first-of-its-kind legislation that requires presidential and gubernatorial candidates to release at least five years of recent tax returns in order to land on the state’s primary ballot.
During Wednesday’s press conference, Trump mistakenly claimed Newsom was suing to keep the Republican off the upcoming primary ballot.
“It was a massive story, it was the biggest story,” Trump said. “It was headlines all over the place; Trump gets sued by this do-nothing governor in California.”
In fact, it was Trump’s campaign, the California Republican Party and several other plaintiffs that filed a flurry of lawsuits after Newsom signed the bill in July.
Last month during oral arguments, Judge England issued a tentative ruling in favor of the plaintiffs and promised a detailed written order to guide the state’s presumed appeal.
Trump applauded the ruling and called England a “highly respected judge” even though he was appointed by the “opposition.” England was appointed by George W. Bush – a Republican like Trump – in 2002.
In his order, England called the state’s argument that lawmakers passed SB 27 to cement the custom of candidates revealing tax returns “disingenuous.” In the order, he notes that former California Gov. Jerry Brown and Ross Perot didn’t disclose their taxes in 1992, nor did President Gerald Ford.
England, a former state judge, also scoffed at lawmakers attempt to fast-track the bill into law before the primary.
“Significantly, although no other state has enacted a requirement such as the one at issue here, California pushed the envelope even further by passing the act as an ‘urgency statute’ that would go into effect immediately,” England said. “The act was deemed ‘urgent’ in the regard even though California has been conducting presidential primary elections without a tax disclosure requirement since the dawn of American income taxes more than one hundred years prior.”
State Democrats and elected officials insist that the bill is necessary to create a more informed electorate and doesn’t infringe on candidates’ First Amendment rights.
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a defendant in the cases, said the state would fight the unfavorable ruling.
“Our elected leaders have a legal and moral obligation to be transparent with voters about potential conflicts of interest. This law is fundamental to preserving and protecting American democracy,” Padilla said in a statement.
In order to get the desired effect of forcing Trump to disclose his returns to California voters before the primary, state Democrats will need the courts to act quickly: The law requires candidates to release returns before Nov. 26. The state’s appeal will go to the Ninth Circuit and potentially the U.S. Supreme Court.
Some constitutional law scholars give California’s appeal a fighting chance, most notably Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.
“It does not keep any candidate from being on the ballot so long as he or she complies with a simple requirement that is meant to provide California voters crucial information. This is the state acting to make sure that its voters have information that might be very important to them when they cast their ballots as to who they want to be president of the United States,” Chemerinsky said after the bill became law.
— By Nick Cahill