The New Jersey State Senate voted overwhelmingly in favor of a bill Thursday to require presidential candidates to release five years’ worth of tax returns in exchange for a place on the state’s ballot. The measure passed along party lines 23-11. Sitting President Donald Trump famously bucked modern tradition when refusing to release his tax returns, so the NJ measure could effectively keep Donald Trump off the ballot.
The Democrat-dominated New Jersey legislature passed the same requirement in 2017, but Republican Gov. Chris Christie refused to sign it. Since New Jersey is now a deep blue state, this bill’s passage in the state’s Senate raises the specter that this bill could receive the approval of the Assembly committee and full legislature, the signature of Democratic New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, and become law.
Would it measure pass Constitutional muster, though?
The bill constitutes a sweeping change: not only does it deny presidential and vice presidential candidates a place on the state ballot if they have not publicly released five of their most recent tax returns at least 50 days before the general election in 2020, it also prohibits state’s electors to the electoral college from voting for those candidates, too.
In 1995, the US Supreme Court ruled in US Term Limits v. Thornton that states cannot impose qualifications for membership to the US Congress beyond those specified in the Constitution.
David Keating, president of the Institute for Free Speech, told Spectator USA that a measure like New Jersey’s would probably receive unanimous disapproval from the Supreme Court – if it even made it that far.
‘The state cannot place additional restrictions on candidates for Federal office. Only the Constitution can say who can be elected to Congress. What NJ is proposing to do here seems directly contradictory to the US Term Limits v. Thornton case. If challenged, I don’t think it would be upheld by any lower court,’ he said.
‘At least in [US Term Limits v. Thornton] the people of Arkansas could write-in whomever they wanted. [Under the NJ proposal] even if Trump got enough write-ins… he would be barred from getting any electoral votes.’
New Jersey’s non-partisan Office of Legislative Services (OLS) already ruled on the constitutionality of ballot access restrictions on candidates running for federal offices in 2017. Specifically, OLS ruled such a measure would violate the Qualification Clauses in Articles I and II of the US Constitution as well as the First and Fourteenth Amendments, which ‘constrain the Legislature’s power to restrict candidates for federal elective office from appearing on the ballot.’
Quite simply, the state legislature cannot add qualifications for federal office beyond those set forth in the Constitution, the OLS ruled. ‘Moreover, the Legislature must apply any ballot access restriction it implements in an evenhanded manner to avoid violating the voters’ freedom of choice and association…’
As it stands, ‘this bill is wildly unconstitutional,’ writes attorney and NJ political commentator Matt Rooney. ‘They’re not confident enough in their failed, tax-happy, far-left, prosperity-crushing “ideas” to engage a fair fight, so they try to rig our ballot…’
In addition to the Constitutional conundrum this bill raises, Democrats themselves have not fulfilled its requirements.
New Jersey’s Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy ‘has only released the first two pages of his own federal tax returns. The governor has made additional tax forms available for reporters to inspect, but only for a limited time. Murphy’s full returns have not been posted online in the same manner the bill would require for presidential and vice-presidential candidates,’ reports NJ Spotlight.
To highlight the bill’s ‘height of hypocrisy,’ New Jersey State Sen. Joe Pennacchio pushed to require the same standards be applied to candidates for governor, State Senate, and the General Assembly. Democrats blocked his amendments.
‘Clearly their bill is nothing more than a thinly-veiled political stunt to keep President Trump off the ballot. It shows that they are unwilling to hold themselves to the same standard…’ Pennachio said in a statement. ‘Politicians around the country are calling for fairer elections, but in our state, Democrats would rather play politics and rig the system.’
Proponents of the bill seem to agree with Pennachio that its purpose is to keep Donald Trump off the ballot.
‘It is so obvious with this president that had voters known some of what seem to be his business interests, he may not have been elected president,’ sponsor of the legislation State Sen. Loretta Weinberg told the Courier Post.