The state of New York is currently in the process of passing a law allowing Congress to access the state tax returns of elected officials and top appointed officials. This is seen as a potential "end-run" around the IRS's refusal to provide Congress with the president's federal tax returns.

My question is, what potential effect would this have? If the worst possible scenario for the president is that there is irrefutable proof of a crime (like tax evasion) in his New York tax returns... then what? It's a state crime, not a federal one; does that make a difference?

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    Not currently in the process of passing. They passed it an hour before you asked your question. May 22, 2019 at 19:15
  • I guess he or she should be bound by some law at least. Maybe ask at law.stackexhange May 22, 2019 at 21:38
  • Can you limit this to one question and align it with the title question?
    – user9790
    Oct 30, 2019 at 19:11

3 Answers 3


There is no blanket immunity in State Laws for the President. A court can issue an arrest warrant for any individual, if the court has "probable cause". However this is not likely to happen. It is generally understood that the proper constitutional route for dealing with crimes by the president is through the impeachment process. A federal court could well claim jurisdiction and it seems likely that the President enjoys some immunity from Federal Law, as he is particularly subject to the impeachment process

In the particular case of tax evasion, the authorities normally look to "recovery" rather than prosecution. In cases such as Duke Cunningham, he resigned from the House of Representatives before his trial. On the other hand Charles Rangel was censured by the house and required to repay the unpaid tax, but was not charged. In cases of "simple" tax evasion, the IRS would rather just get the money. If it is part of a pattern of other corrupt behaviour (bribery, fraud, racketeering etc.) then a criminal prosecution is more likely.

This has never happened so we don't know for sure what the process or outcome would be.

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    Well, it's kind of happened, with Nixon. One of the things precipitating his resignation was the revelation that he was something of a tax fraud. Nixon did, however, agree to abide by the committee's findings on the amount he owed, promising to pay whatever amount they calculated. Which ended up being nearly half a million dollars (which he paid). Nixon was more cooperative than Trump has been, though Nixon had his hand forced by public leaks of much of the relevant tax information. May 22, 2019 at 20:44
  • Indeed, and Nixon did not face prosecution during his presidency.
    – James K
    May 22, 2019 at 20:47
  • "arrest warrant...However this is not likely to happen." Can you validate that claim? Referring to the title question, can you conceive that a president would not be arrested for "shooting someone in the middle of 5th Ave".
    – BobE
    May 23, 2019 at 2:47
  • Of course I can't validate that claim. Of course if a president were engaged in some kind of violent crime then he could be arrested, no warrant is needed if the crime is witnessed by the arresting officer. The question, however, is about state tax evasion.
    – James K
    May 23, 2019 at 22:28
  • @James K, actually the title question only addresses the Pres being bound by State Laws. The OP later uses tax evasion as an example. In your example (violent crime) seems to be conditioned on being witnessed by an arresting officer; that suggests that the pres may escape arrest if the only witnesses are 200 civilians. Regardless, the title question is about State laws generally.
    – BobE
    May 24, 2019 at 2:51

If the worst possible scenario for the president is that there is irrefutable proof of a crime (like tax evasion) in his New York tax returns... then what?

It's somewhat unclear. Some people maintain that United States presidents are protected from any prosecution while in office. Others say they aren't. Bill Clinton was forced to turn over some records in court under the latter interpretation (that he was not protected) but that was in a civil case.

Moreover, it seems unlikely that Donald Trump's tax returns show anything for which he could be prosecuted. If so, why wasn't he prosecuted before he was president? The state of New York could have prosecuted him while he was running to far greater effect. He would basically have needed to do something illegal for the first time in 2017.

It is far more likely that there is something embarrassing in his tax returns. For example, that he lost money for a decade. Of course his bankruptcy during that time already suggested that might be true. Or that his tax returns show some business decisions that he would like to be private.

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    Yes, it seems far more likely a case of embarassment. Trump has a long history of inflating his wealth, and claiming to be a self-made billionaire when in fact he inherited a several hundred million dollar real estate empire. Maybe the tax returns will show that he's actually broke and living of his loans from Deutsche Bank.
    – jamesqf
    May 23, 2019 at 3:13
  • can you cite some legal scholars who maintain that the sitting president is immune from prosecution from any source? .. I can't. Even the question of federal prosecution (which is not the question here) is unsettled, but, BTW one of the best articles I've read covering that is [ theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/05/presidential-indictment/… ]
    – BobE
    May 23, 2019 at 18:59
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    The IRS had completely failed to notice Nixon's tax fraud during an audit. It wasn't until his tax info got leaked and a congressional audit began that the IRS redid things and found it. Many reforms to tax law and internal IRS rules were made in response to the embarrassments and scandals of Nixon's personal and political tax abuses. But your argument that they would have found something amiss with Trump's taxes long ago (if there was anything), and already would have pursued them, is basically nonsense. May 23, 2019 at 20:32
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    @zibadawa timmy.. My suspicion is that Trump's taxes are chained, that is, certain losses/gains are able to be declared over a series of years. Consequently, the validity of one year's return has some dependency on prior year's returns. This is probably even more evident with real estate holdings/transfers/purchases. So. while I agree that "long ago" issues might have not yet been found, "nonsense" is a tad harsh
    – BobE
    May 24, 2019 at 3:08

Such a law is almost certain to be ruled unconstitutional. The Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution

establishes that the federal constitution, and federal law generally, take precedence over state laws

(the quoted part is from the link).

The Federal government has compelling reasons for keeping tax filings private. For example, it increases voluntary compliance. Since the Federal law mandates making tax filings private, state law cannot override this intent of the Federal law.

If the state law imposes any penalties on a Federal public official for non-compliance, it would also be afoul of the Supremacy Clause because the Supremacy Clause

prohibits states from interfering with the federal government's exercise of its constitutional powers

(the quoted part is also from the same link).

If there are exceptions to be made to this Federal law, they cannot be made on a state level. This isn't about state taxation. States can continue to impose taxes. This is about privacy of tax information. As long as any Federal tax information makes its way into state filings (it usually does and, in case of NY State, investment information definitely does), states cannot break the Federal government's assurances of privacy of such information without interfering with Fed Govt's exercise of its powers.

If the Federal legislative body wants the power to view a public official's tax returns, then the Federal legislative body (i.e., Congress) is going to have to change the Federal law itself.

However, such a change cannot apply retroactively. Article I section 10 (of the US Constitution) prohibits states from passing any ex post facto laws. So any law passed by a state cannot punish past conduct or impose a burden on conduct which has already happened. Article I section 9 prohibits Congress from passing any ex post facto law. So even though such a law would have to be passed by the Federal government, such a law can only regulate future conduct.

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    I cannot foresee that a supremacy claim could be made by the Federal government over State taxation authorities.
    – user9790
    Oct 30, 2019 at 19:10
  • @KDog given the concern expressed in your comment, I thought it would be better to address it in the answer itself. So I made my previous comment part of the answer.
    – grovkin
    Oct 30, 2019 at 19:39

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