The Volokh Conspiracy
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Yesterday, a unanimous panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit rejected an ingenious attempt by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) to obtain President Trump's tax records through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Judge Henderson's opinion for the panel in EPIC v. IRS begins:
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) collects more than money. It acquires and maintains a reservoir of sensitive information about taxpayers. And time was, the President could—for any reason or no reason at all—order the IRS to make that sensitive information public. The arrangement worked out fine for decades. Then the Nixon administration compiled a list of political enemies and ordered the IRS to harass them. The resulting scandal prompted the Congress to enact sweeping legislation to protect taxpayer privacy. The Internal Revenue Code (IRC) now mandates that tax "[r]eturns and return information shall be confidential" unless they fall within one of the statute's narrowly drawn exceptions. I.R.C. § 6103(a).
At first blush, the IRC stands in tension with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which vests the public with a broad right to access government records. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3)(A). One statute demands openness; the other privacy. But as we explain infra, the statutes work well together. Not all records are subject to FOIA requests. An agency need not disclose records "specifically exempted from disclosure by statute." Id. § 552(b)(3). Because the IRC is such a statute, records that fall within its confidentiality mandate are exempt from FOIA.
This case presents the question whether a member of the public—here, a nonprofit organization—can use a FOIA request to obtain an unrelated individual's tax records without his consent. With certain limited exceptions—all inapplicable here—the answer is no. No one can demand to inspect another's tax records. And the IRC's confidentiality protections extend to the ordinary taxpayer and the President alike. Accordingly, we affirm the dismissal of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC)'s lawsuit seeking President Donald J. Trump's income tax records.