California Gov. Gavin Newsom just violated his oath of office by signing a patently unconstitutional law to score a few political points against President Donald Trump.
The new law requires anyone appearing on California’s presidential primary ballot to disclose their federal income tax returns. Should a candidate refuse to release their tax returns — a wealthy candidate’s returns might run into the hundreds of pages, giving opposition researchers and the news media a field day of poorly-informed accusations — they can’t win any California delegates during the primary election. If, however, they win their party’s nomination anyway, they’ll still appear on California’s general election ballot in November.
Democrat Jerry Brown disagreed
In 2017, former Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill. In his veto message he wrote,
“Although tax returns are by law confidential, many presidential candidates have voluntarily released them. This bill is a response to President Trump’s refusal to release his returns during the last election.
“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 qualified candidate’s ability to appear on the ballot is fundamental to our democratic system. For that reason, I hesitate to start down a road that well might lead to an ever-escalating set of differing state requirements for presidential candidates.”
While Gov. Brown’s progressive liberal credentials are impeccable, he frequently provided some degree of adult supervision over the increasingly left-wing California legislature. Gov. Newsom, with the notable exceptions of applying some common sense to the troubled high-speed rail project, forest management and wildfire prevention, seems to have little inclination to check the legislature in other areas.
No tax returns in Constitution
Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution states the qualifications to hold the office of president:
“No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.”
The federal income tax wasn’t constitutionally authorized until the passage of the 16th Amendment in 1913, which may explain why submitting tax returns is absent from the short list of required presidential qualifications.
But the Constitution does set a few other conditions. People can be disqualified from the presidency if they have been elected twice before to the office; if they have been impeached by the House, convicted by the Senate, and banned from holding further federal office by the Senate; or if they have rebelled against the United States.
Somewhat like California’s new law, in the wake of President Barack Obama’s election in 2008, a few states looked to pass legislation requiring proof that a presidential candidate was a natural-born citizen. Unlike California’s ballot access law, the natural-born citizen requirement is found in the Constitution — it’s just that federal legislation was never passed to clarify the requirement, leaving the question open for the states.
That understood, states do routinely limit access to the ballot, otherwise the voters would be confronted with more than 200-odd candidates pushing fringe agendas during a presidential election. Thus, states often lend their election apparatus to recognized political parties for primary elections to determine convention delegate allotments while allowing independent or write-in “write-in” candidates access to the ballot should they show enough organizing strength by gathering signatures on petitions to prove their credibility.
Revisiting former Gov. Brown’s concern over a “slippery slope” of “ever-escalating” “state requirements for presidential candidates,” imagine if Texas passed a similar law placing a requirement that, to appear on the Texas presidential primary ballot, a candidate has to have run a business for at least five years. Why stop there? Why not have a requirement that a candidate must have earned a billion dollars?
A proliferation of unique state requirements to appear on the ballot isn’t likely to spread around the nation — because California’s new ballot access law will be declared unconstitutional and voided.