Donald Trump’s refusal thus far to release his tax returns raises an interesting issue. Tax returns are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). I can’t just ask the IRS to give me his returns and get them. While this makes sense as a general matter given the privacy concerns involved, I wonder whether the custom of having high public officials release their returns should be codified by making their returns subject to FOIA.
For an ordinary citizen, tax returns should be private unless they are required for a criminal investigation or are subject to a valid subpoena in a civil case. Presidential candidates (at least the two major party nominees) have voluntarily released their returns for a long time, though I don’t know for how long. It seems to me that the public’s right to know in this instance overrides a candidate’s privacy interest. We might find out, for instance, that Trump did not pay any federal income tax last year. I’d like to know if he did, and I think that I have a right to know. Political pressure may compel him to act, but should that be the only way of obtaining that information?