On Candidate Tax Returns Bill, Legislature Didn’t Even Check the California Constitution

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

I’ve long been criticized as “unrealistic” for arguing that the California constitution is essentially useless and should be replaced. I’m glad to see the California legislature agrees with me. 

That agreement became clear during an extraordinary moment in a hearing before the California Supreme Court. The case was the legal challenge to the new state law, aimed at President Trump, which requires candidates to disclose their tax returns if they want to be on the statewide ballot. 

Justices were skeptical about this law, and the limits of the legislature to add requirements. But Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye zeroed in on the big issue—that the law almost certainly violates the California constitution. That document, after all, requires open primaries and it says that the state must place on the ballot any “recognized candidates throughout the nation or throughout California.” 

I pointed out the basic unconstitutionality of this law before it was approved and signed, and my argument was largely ignored. (Other critics of the law have focused on federal constitutional claims). But not by the chief justice. She then pressed a lawyer for the state on whether the legislature had examined the California constitution before its passage. Cantil-Sakauye noted that the court “didn’t find anything” in terms of evidence of constitutional checking. 

She then asked whether they’d missed anything.

They hadn’t.

If the state legislature and governor so blithely ignore the state constitution on a high-profile matter, why should any of us respect that document?

The answer is: we shouldn’t. California badly needs a new constitution—or any constitution that is worth reading.

 

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