In Patterson v. Padilla, the Supreme Court today finds that Senate Bill 27, which seeks to force presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns, violates the California constitution, at least as to well-known candidates.  Because of the urgency of resolving the issue, the court makes its opinion final immediately, which is permitted but unusual.

The state constitution requires the Legislature to provide for partisan presidential elections, including primary ballots with the names of “those found by the Secretary of State to be recognized [presidential] candidates throughout the nation or throughout California” and also of “those whose names are placed on the ballot by petition.”  SB 27 bars from the ballot those candidates who don’t disclose their last five years of income tax returns.  A legislative report says the bill was “prompted by [the current president’s] break with the customary practice” of candidates releasing their tax returns.

The court’s unanimous opinion by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye holds that a candidate who is “recognized,” as provided in the constitution, cannot be forced by a statute to release their tax returns as a condition of appearing on the ballot.  Instead, the court concludes, as to that candidate, “it is the voters who must decide whether the refusal . . . to make such information available to the public will have consequences at the ballot box.”

The court expressly leaves open whether the tax-return-disclosure requirement applies to candidates who seek to appear on the ballot by petition.  The law also apparently still applies to candidates for governor.

The court finds that the history of the constitutional mandate for “recognized” candidates to appear on the ballot “responded to concerns that voters in previous California presidential primary elections had not consistently been provided with an adequate choice among candidates for president.”

In addition to signing the court’s opinion, Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar writes a separate concurrence.  He says the decision does not dilute the Legislature’s findings in SB 27, including that “voters ‘can better estimate the risks of any given Presidential candidate engaging in corruption or the appearance of corruption if they have access to candidates’ tax returns,'” and he quotes Thomas Jefferson’s warning that “‘[t]he time to guard against corruption and tyranny is before they shall have gotten their hold on us.  It is better to keep the wolf out of the fold, than to trust to drawing his teeth and talons after he shall have entered.’”

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