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Bills requiring candidates to submit tax returns face obstacles

April 15, 2017 at 5:31 PM EDT
Thousands of demonstrators across the country called today for President Donald Trump to release his personal tax returns. About half of state legislatures have also introduced bills that require all future presidential candidates to release their tax returns in order to be placed on the ballot. Derek Muller, professor at Pepperdine University Law School, joins Hari Sreenivasan from Los Angeles to discuss the constitutional challenges the bills might face.

HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: In the nation’s capital and other cities today, thousands of demonstrators called for President Trump to release his personal tax returns. The marches occurred on the day that’s usually the deadline for all Americans to file their returns — that’s Tuesday this year, due to the Easter holiday weekend.

No president is required to release his taxes, but every major party nominee for president has done so since the ’70s. Beyond the marches, about half of the nation’s state legislatures have seen bills introduced to require all future presidential candidates to release their tax returns in order to be placed on the state’s ballot. Most proposals are in states that voted Democratic last year, but no state has adopted such a law yet, and they would likely face constitutional challenges. There’s a similar bill pending in Congress as well.

Pepperdine University Law School professor Derek Muller is following this issue, and joins me now from Los Angeles to discuss it.

You study election law. What are — what’s the chance of one of these laws in one of these states passing?

DEREK MULLER, PEPPERDINE UNIVERSITY LAW SCHOOL PROFESSOR: Well, I think there’s a decent chance that they’ll get enacted. You know, when you have enough states with enough proposed laws, surely in a place like California, New York, I think there is decent odds that they’ll pass one of the legislatures. There is one enacted in New Jersey and it’s sitting on the governor’s desk and we’ve seen substantial movement in places like Massachusetts, Connecticut and elsewhere around the country.

SREENIVASAN: So, what’s the likelihood that even if one of these laws are passed, that the president actually has to do this?

MULLER: So, I think that’s where there are some interesting constitutional challenges. On the one hand, I think it’s very difficult to say that states can add qualifications to the office of president. We’re very familiar with those qualifications — you have to be 35 years old, a natural-born citizen, 14 years a resident of the United States.

And so, proponents are saying, we’re not adding qualifications. All we’re doing is regulating access to the ballot and I think that’s a challenge as well, because in a lot of cases that handle ballot access, they say, look, you want to make sure that the ballot separates serious from frivolous candidates. So, keeping frivolous candidates off the ballot requires them to, say, get 500 petitions signed — or 500 signatures on a petition, to get 1 percent of the state’s registered voters to sign a petition.

And no court has ever sort of authorized the use of the ballot as sort of a tool to achieve some preferred policy outcome. So, I think there’s a real constitutional challenge to some of these issues that I think proponents would face, if such bills are enacted.

SREENIVASAN: You also argued in a recent op-ed that it shouldn’t happen as sort of a blunt instrument. There could be unintended consequences.

MULLER: That’s right. So, I think we forget that for a lot of candidates, they haven’t disclosed their taxes. Ross Perot hasn’t — didn’t disclose his taxes, or Gerald Ford didn’t disclose all this taxes. There are disputes about whether candidates’ wives should disclose their tax returns. John Kerry didn’t disclose his wife’s tax returns or John McCain.

And there are disputes about how many tax returns you’re supposed to disclose. Ronald Reagan disclosed I think 30 tax returns. John McCain and Mitt Romney each decided to only disclose two.

So, there’s a lot of sort of political fights we’ve had about this, and over the years, it’s sort of ebbed and flowed, and sort of reached kind of an equilibrium where we expect it. And I think that the challenge is, you know, if (ph) Donald Trump has not met the expectations of many people, and I think it’s a question about whether or not we want to codify this in to a statute for 2020 and going forward.

SREENIVASAN: Are there other ways to resolve this issue or create an incentive for him or anyone to reveal their taxes?

MULLER: Right. So, I think the political process is where that usually happens, but we see that the political process has its limitations, right? You can try to ask questions of the candidates. You can ask at town hall meetings or public forums. You can have media sort of press the issue.

But at the end of the day, it’s really left to the voters to decide how much it matters. And in places like California, New York, and New Jersey, I’m sure it hurt Mr. Trump. But in places like the Midwest, where it appeared that voters didn’t particularly care.

So, we have a political process that would allow this to play out. But, again, maybe some people are just not as happy with how it played out in 2016.

SREENIVASAN: All right. Derek Muller from the Pepperdine University School of Law — thanks so much.

MULLER: Thank you.