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State laws on Trump tax returns misguided

Gov. Kate Brown attracted some attention this week when she told a Huffington Post interviewer that she would sign a bill requiring President Trump and other presidential candidates to release their tax returns to appear on the Oregon ballot. That’s the wrong way to go about it.

Brown’s remarks came after California Gov. Gavin Newsom last month signed into law a measure requiring presidential and gubernatorial candidates to disclose five years of federal tax returns to appear on that state’s primary ballot.

The California law already has generated lawsuits from Trump, the Republican National Committee and the conservative group Judicial Watch, which filed on behalf of a group of voters.

We think Trump should release his returns, as every major-party presidential nominee since 1976 has voluntarily done and as Trump himself promised to do if he won the election. The voters have a right to know how those seeking (or in Trump’s case, already occupying) the highest office in the land earned their money and that they have no financial conflicts of interest — substantial debts, for instance — that might influence their decisions as president. But placing state-by-state restrictions on ballot access is the wrong way to accomplish that, and California will probably lose the court battle over it.

The presidential nominating process is a function of political parties, not government, although many states conduct primary elections on the parties’ behalf. There is nothing in the Constitution that requires primaries, and at one time presidential candidates were chosen in party conventions with no voter participation at all.

The Constitution lays out the requirements for the office of president, but releasing tax returns is not among them. That is a custom that has been voluntarily observed by all major-party nominees starting with Jimmy Carter (Gerald Ford released a summary of tax information, but not his actual returns). For states to require this of candidates would in effect be adding a new requirement to seek the office, something states do not have the power to do.

The California law — and any potential Oregon statute — is clearly aimed at Trump, which makes it politically motivated. If the California law were somehow upheld, nothing would prevent Trump from mounting a write-in campaign, which would probably succeed among Republican voters. The same thing would likely happen in Oregon.

Meanwhile, separate efforts are underway in Congress, where House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., has asked for Trump’s returns under a 1924 law requiring the Treasury secretary to release them on request. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a law allowing state officials to release Trump’s New York returns to Neal if he asks for them. Trump is fighting both of those attempts in court as well.

The federal law in question is unambiguous, and Congress has a legitimate interest in scrutinizing Trump’s financial dealings, especially as he has never divested himself of his business interests.

The best course for Brown and the 2020 Oregon Legislature is to let the courts decide, not waste time and effort on a misguided law that wouldn’t achieve its intended purpose.