I think presidential candidates should release their tax returns. President Trump has refused to do so, making the implausible contention that all of his tax returns for every year at every level are being audited by the Internal Revenue Service. (Note that legally, nothing prevents Trump from releasing his returns during an audit.) But Trump’s election suggests that the American electorate doesn’t find this lack of disclosure to be a deal-breaker.
But I’m wary at best about any government effort to mandate the public disclosure of a candidate’s tax returns, whether it’s House Ways and Means Committee chairman Richard Neal declaring Trump’s returns are needed for oversight of the IRS audit procedures, or a bill signed into law in California earlier this year that would bar Trump from appearing on that state’s primary ballot unless he released his tax returns.
Thankfully, the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the state cannot bar candidates from appearing on the ballot for refusing to disclose their returns.
In 1972, California passed Proposition 4, an amendment to the state constitution declaring that “those found by the Secretary of State to be recognized candidates throughout the nation or throughout California for the office of the President of the United States, and those whose names placed on the ballot by petition” could not be barred from the ballot. Under the old system, candidates had to submit lists of delegates to the California Secretary of State to appear on the ballot, and that led to John F. Kennedy not appearing on the 1960 Democratic primary ballot and Richard Nixon not appearing on the 1968 Republican primary ballot. The Secretary of State protected “Favorite Son” candidates Pat Brown in 1960 and Ronald Reagan in 1968.
Fed up with ballot access being limited to help out particular candidates, California voters amended the constitution to ensure every candidate could appear on the primary ballot.
The state Supreme Court found that the law barring any candidates who refused to disclose their tax returns “conflicts with the more inclusive presidential primary that the electorate endorsed when it approved Proposition 4.”