California Law Preventing President Trump from Appearing on 2020 Ballot Struck Down (California Supreme Court)
On 21 November 2019, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously, in the case of Patternson v Padilla, S257302 (2019), that the California law requiring all presidential candidates to publish their tax returns as a precondition to appearing on the presidential ballot in the State of California violated the State Constitution. The law was generally believed to specifically target President Trump to force him to release his tax returns before the 2020 presidential elections. The case was adjudicated under the Californian Constitution only and did not discuss issues related to federal law or the federal Constitution.
In July 2019, California passed the Presidential Tax Transparency and Accountability Act (Elec. Code, § 6880 et seq.) which barred any candidate from appearing on a presidential ballot in this State unless they disclosed their tax returns of the last five years. The motivation behind the Presidential Tax Transparency and Accountability Act was explained as follows:
“In 1973, the Providence Journal-Bulletin obtained and published data showing that President Richard Nixon had paid an astonishingly low amount in taxes in 1969 given his income for that year. After initially resisting calls for him to do so, Nixon eventually released his taxes and underwent an IRS audit. It turned out he had improperly claimed an exemption of $500,000 for papers he donated to the National Archives. Ever since this incident, it has been customary — though never required by law — for U.S. Presidential candidates to release their tax returns. Prior to 2016, only one candidate, President Gerald Ford in 1976, did not do so. Ford released a summary of his return instead. During the 2016 campaign for U.S. President, Donald Trump broke with this longstanding tradition and refused to release his tax returns. Though prompted by Trump’s break with the customary practice, this bill is not retroactive and would only apply to future presidential candidates.” (pp8-9)
Immediately after the Presidential Tax Transparency and Accountability Act had been passed, Jessica Patterson, individual California voter and the current Chairperson of the Petitioner California Republican Party sued claiming that it prevented an open primary as guaranteed by Article II, section 5(c) of the Californian Constitution which provides:
“The Legislature shall provide for partisan elections for presidential candidates, and political party and party central committees, including an open presidential primary whereby the candidates on the ballot are those found by the Secretary of State to be recognized candidates throughout the nation or throughout California for the office of President of the United States, and those whose names are placed on the ballot by petition, but excluding any candidate who has withdrawn by filing an affidavit of noncandidacy.”
The language concerning the inclusion of “recognized” candidates was added to the Californian Constitution by Proposition 4 as a June 1972 ballot measure (p6). “Before this measure came into effect, candidates for president had to take affirmative steps to enter the California primary. Advocates for ballot reform perceived that this system frustrated voters’ ability to choose among a comprehensive array of candidates at presidential primary elections and diminished the state’s influence in the national presidential nomination process. Proposition 4 responded to these concerns by requiring that all nationally or California-recognized candidates be included on the ballot, unless a person deemed to be such a candidate submits an affidavit of noncandidacy” (p23).
On 21 November 2019, the California Supreme Court held unanimously “that whatever authority the Legislature may have in defining how presidential primaries are to occur in this state, the challenged sections of the [Presidential Tax Transparency and Accountability] Act exceed such authority and are unenforceable” (p18). The Court found that:
“…Article II, section 5(c) is most naturally read as conveying a rule of inclusivity for presidential primary elections that the Legislature cannot contravene. This reading is strongly supported by the history of the constitutional text that now appears in article II, section 5(c). This history establishes beyond fair dispute that this language was adopted to ensure that the ballots for parties participating in the presidential primary election would include all persons within said parties deemed to be “recognized candidates throughout the nation or throughout California for the office of President of the United States,” except for those candidates who filed affidavits of noncandidacy, so that voters in the primary election would have a direct opportunity to vote for or against these candidates.” (p18)
The case of Patternson v Padilla, S257302 (2019) is important in light of the 2020 presidential elections with President Trump consistently refusing to release his tax returns. If the Presidential Tax Transparency and Accountability Act remained on the books, President Trump would be unable to appear on the ballot in the State of California in 2020. At the same time, the outcome of the case is rather surprising given that the majority of the Justices of the California Supreme Court were appointed by Democratic Governors. The State of California leads the legal battle against President Trump and his polices. In fact, following the ruling from the Court, Jesse Melgar, a spokesman for Governor Newsom California, announced that California would “continue to fight against the self-dealing, conflicts of interest and blatant corruption that have pervaded the Trump presidency” (Los Angeles Times).