By Alexei Koseff
President Trump and representatives for the Republican Party on Tuesday filed three separate complaints to overturn a California law that would require candidates for president and governor to release their tax returns.
There are now five lawsuits seeking to strike down SB27, which was signed last week by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The law would block candidates from the California primary ballot if they do not provide their past five years of income tax returns to the state.
"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, a personal lawyer for Trump, said in a statement. "The effort to deny California voters the opportunity to cast a ballot for President Trump in 2020 will clearly fail. Legal scholars from across the political spectrum have roundly condemned this flagrantly illegal statute."
Trump broke with four decades of presidential precedent by refusing to disclose any of his income tax returns in 2016 and has indicated he will withhold them again in 2020. Trump said he could not release his tax returns because he was being audited by the Internal Revenue Service, though federal law makes no such prohibition.
Democrats in Congress and more than a dozen state legislatures have since moved to pry lose Trump's financial records. House Democrats sued the U.S. Treasury Department last month for access to Trump's federal tax returns, while the president sued weeks later to block a New York law that would allow officials there to hand over his state tax returns to three congressional committees.
The California law, the first of its kind in the nation, requires candidates for president and governor to file their five most recent tax returns with the California secretary of state at least 98 days before the primary election to qualify for the ballot. The forms will be posted online after personal information is redacted, including Social Security numbers, home addresses and the names of dependent children.
"There's an easy fix for the President," Newsom said in a statement. "He should release his tax returns as he promised during the campaign and follow the precedent of every president since 1973."
Trump and his re-election campaign filed suit in federal district court in Sacramento against California Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Attorney General Xavier Becerra. The Republican National Committee, the California Republican Party and three Republican voters also sued in Sacramento, naming Newsom and Padilla as defendants in "a naked political attack against the sitting President of the United States" that "subverts the franchise for cheap political gain."
Both lawsuits -- which ask the court for an award of litigation costs, in addition to blocking the law -- make similar arguments that the U.S. Constitution establishes the only qualifications for the presidency and the Supreme Court has previously barred states from creating their own eligibility standards for federal candidates.
The lawsuits also cite First and Fourteenth Amendment protections allowing voters to freely associate with the political party and candidate of their choosing. They contend that California's law would unconstitutionally interfere with primaries in other states by making it harder for Trump to win the Republican nomination for president, undermining the votes cast by his supporters elsewhere.
"It certainly doesn't bode well for Democrats heading into 2020 that their best bet for beating President Trump is to deny millions of Californians the ability to vote for him," Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman for the Republican National Committee, said in a statement. "This stunt by Democrats is unconstitutional and, simply put, desperate."
Trump's suit points to numerous tweets and public statements about his tax returns by Newsom and the legislators behind the law as proof "that they were retaliating against President Trump for his political associations and speech."
State Sen. Mike McGuire, who shepherded the law through the Legislature, said in a statement, that "releasing of tax returns has never been a big deal, up until now."
"It comes as no surprise that President Trump would freak out at the prospect of presidential transparency and accountability, but he will need to get used to it," the Healdsburg Democrat said. "Welcome to the rule of law, Mr. President."
Legal scholars are divided over the constitutionality of the California law. While the Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that states cannot "add qualifications" for federal candidates when it struck down term limits for members of Congress in nearly two dozen states, it has allowed states to regulate access to the ballot through filing fees or other actions that are within a candidate's power.
In 2017, former Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a previous version of the bill that applied only to presidential candidates, expressing concern that it could be a slippery slope to other requirements, such as health records. Brown declined to release his own tax returns during his unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1992 and again when he ran for California governor in 2010 and 2014.
California Republican Party Chair Jessica Patterson accused Democrats of trying to suppress Republican turnout in the March primary by keeping Trump off the ballot, potentially shutting GOP congressional and legislative candidates out of the general election under the state's "top two" system.
"It's unconscionable to use these political tricks and underhanded tactics to influence elections," she said in a statement. "We have very real problems that need to be addressed in California."
Patterson and the California Republican Party filed another complaint Tuesday against Padilla, asking the state Supreme Court for emergency relief before the November deadline for presidential candidates to file their tax returns with the state.
Conservative advocacy group Judicial Watch and Republican presidential candidate Rocky De La Fuente previously sued to block the law.
Though most leading Democratic presidential contenders, who have published 10 or more years of their tax returns, would still be eligible to run in California under the law, it could ensnare former Vice President Joe Biden, who released only his three most recent federal tax returns last month.
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