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California Requires Trump Tax Returns Under New Election Law

LOS ANGELES — President Trump will not be eligible for California’s primary ballot unless he releases his tax returns, under a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday.

The law requires that all presidential candidates release their tax returns in order to be placed on the ballot for the state’s primary next year, in a move that will almost certainly lead to legal challenges. Mr. Newsom’s decision to sign the legislation seemed designed to escalate a running feud between the White House and California.

The state is currently involved in more than 40 lawsuits with the Trump administration on issues ranging from environmental regulation to immigration.

The California State Legislature approved a similar measure in 2017, but Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it, questioning whether it was constitutional. Mr. Brown, who left office in January, also said it would create a precedent for requiring other information — including medical records or certified birth certificates — from candidates.

Mr. Newsom sent mixed messages on whether he would sign the law, but finally did so on the final day before the bill would become law without his signature. The legislation does not explicitly cite Mr. Trump, but lawmakers made no secret that he was the target when they passed the bill along party lines.

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The law, which goes into effect immediately, requires candidates for president or governor to submit copies of their tax returns from the last five years with the California secretary of state at least three months ahead of the state’s primary. That means Mr. Trump would have to provide his tax returns by the end of this year.

“These are extraordinary times and states have a legal and moral duty to do everything in their power to ensure leaders seeking the highest offices meet minimal standards, and to restore public confidence,” Mr. Newsom said in a statement as he signed the legislation. “The disclosure required by this bill will shed light on conflicts of interest, self-dealing, or influence from domestic and foreign business interest.”

The governor cited several legal scholars who signaled support for such a requirement, but it will probably be left to the courts to decide.

Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, declined to comment on potential lawsuits, but called the legislation unconstitutional.

“The Constitution is clear on the qualifications for someone to serve as president and states cannot add additional requirements on their own,” Mr. Murtaugh said. “The bill also violates the First Amendment right of association since California can’t tell political parties which candidates their members can or cannot vote for in a primary election.”

The Trump campaign, which has been closely tracking ballot access issues for months and coordinating with the White House Counsel’s Office, is likely to respond with a lawsuit, according to an official with the campaign. That suit could potentially include a number of plaintiffs, including the Republican National Committee, the California Republican Party and the Trump campaign, but the official warned that nothing about a suit had been finalized.

Nearly a dozen similar bills are active in other states, including New York, New Jersey, Washington and Pennsylvania, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The vast majority of presidential nominees in the last several decades have released their tax returns, with the exception of Gerald Ford in 1976. Mr. Brown and his Republican opponents declined to release their returns during the governor’s races in 2010 and 2014.

Mr. Brown warned in his veto message that such legislation would be a slippery slope.

“A qualified candidate’s ability to appear on the ballot is fundamental to our democratic system,” he wrote. “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.”

After Democratic state senators introduced the same legislation this year, aides to Mr. Newsom asked the sponsors to add the requirements for candidates for governor as well.

“This is a huge step forward for financial transparency from people who are trying to become the most powerful person in the world,” said Scott Wiener, the state senator from San Francisco who sponsored the bill. “It is absolutely not just written for Donald Trump. This is for every Democratic and Republican and presidential candidate until the end of time.”

Mr. Wiener said that the requirement would apply only to the primary, a decision sponsors made “because it strikes the right balance.”

“It creates a strong incentive for a candidate to disclose their tax returns,” he said. “Losing California’s large number of primary delegates is significant, while ensuring that someone who is a party’s nominee isn’t kept off the ballot in the general election.

While Mr. Trump remains deeply unpopular in California, Mr. Newsom could face a backlash for escalating the state’s longstanding feud with the president in a way that even some Democrats believe is a distraction. Blair Ellis, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, accused California officials of “trying to deny voting rights to the millions of Californians who support President Trump and wish to vote for him in the primary.”

“Instead of trying to beat President Trump at the ballot box next November, he said, “Democrats are resorting to gimmicky tactics that are unconstitutional, undemocratic and just plain dumb.”

Mr. Wiener introduced the legislation in 2017, after a conversation with Brad Hoylman, a state senator in New York who had been a classmate at Harvard Law School. Mr. Hoylman’s legislation stalled in Albany, but his office has tracked similar bills in 30 states in the last two years.

“We now can point to California as a model for the substance and the politics of passing this innovative concept into law,” Mr. Hoylman said. “That will give us an enormous boost of credibility with my colleagues.”

Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the law school at the University of California, Berkeley, and a First Amendment expert, said he was confident the state was on firm legal ground. He said that states also have the right to make a similar requirement for a general election ballot, and that he hoped other states would do so.

“The Supreme Court has said that states have broad latitude over who is going to be on the ballot so long as they aren’t discriminating based on wealth and ideology,” he said. “I think the state has an important interest in that the tax returns can provide vital information to voter.”

But by asserting themselves in national elections, states find themselves in uncertain territory, said Richard H. Pildes, a professor of constitutional law at New York University.

“There’s no question there are serious constitutional issues that are posed by this, particularly because it is a national election and it has implications beyond the state of California,” Mr. Pildes said. “What other kinds of regulations can one imagine that states might impose on presidential candidates to get onto the ballot?”

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