As we’re all acutely aware, in his presidential campaign, Donald Trump flouted decades of history by refusing to release his tax returns. And given that (a) the history was based on norms, not law, and (b) the Republican-controlled Congress did nothing to enforce the norms (or transform them into law), he continued to flout that norm throughout the first two years of his presidency.
Transparency is a widely accepted judicial norm. It increases courts’ accountability and thereby increases the confidence and trust litigants and the general public have in courts’ decisionmaking. The comparatively limited access afforded to Tax Court documents is a longstanding issue. The reason Tax Court transparency differs from that of other courts is partly structural, in that the Tax Court isn’t as neatly situated in the federal government’s org chart as Article III courts, administrative agencies, or even Article I courts such as the Court of Federal Claims. (In fact, even which branch of government the Tax Court is located in has presented a puzzle.) Accordingly, the Tax Court traditionally has created many of its own rules and procedures, such as ones governing access to its documents. This means that the question is also partly cultural. As discussed below, access to Tax Court documents has increased over time, and the appointment of several new Tax Court judges may mean that we see further changes in the future.
In the past, the Tax Court’s more limited transparency has sometimes violated judicial norms and has sometimes created access inequities. For example, although the Tax Court is required by statute to make its reports and evidence “public records open to the inspection of the public,” for years the Tax Court kept its Summary Opinions confidential, which I protested in 1998 in a short Tax Notes article called “Tax Court S Cases: Does the ‘S’ Stand For Secret?”. Although Summary Opinions lack precedential value, they are Tax Court opinions, revealing how the judge deciding the case (typically a Special Trial Judge) thinks about the issues. The Tax Court’s practice of sharing those opinions only with the parties to the case meant that the IRS had a copy of every Summary Opinion but taxpayers typically could not access the opinions in other Small Tax Cases (S cases). This created an uneven playing field. Secrecy can also lead to suspicion of favoritism or other inequities, concerns that existed in an analogous situation, in the era when the IRS did not make Private Letter Rulings (PLRs) public but large firms collected them. Litigation challenging this lack of transparency resulted in legislation, requiring PLRs to be disclosed (with taxpayer information redacted). Continue reading “Increased Transparency in the U.S. Tax Court: Has the Moment Arrived?”→
What does that first sentence mean? Broken down roughly: the tax law requires most entities exempt under section 501 to file an annual information return. That information return—currently Form 990—is filed with the IRS, but must also be made available to the public. It allows both the IRS and the general public a window into the financial workings of tax-exempt organizations, and provides a basis for administrative and public oversight of tax-exempt organizations. (For purposes of this lawsuit, it’s also worth noting that if a tax-exempt organization that is required to file a Form 990 doesn’t for three consecutive years, it automatically loses its exemption.)
Section 6033(a)(3)(A) provides a mandatory exception to the filing requirement, though. Under the Code, churches, their integrated auxiliaries, and conventions of churches don’t have to file a Form 990. While the IRS can still get access to them through an audit (though note that the steps the IRS must take to audit a church are really stringent), the general public has no way to see financial information about a U.S. church unless the church voluntarily discloses that information (which some do). Continue reading “NonBelief Relief and Form 990”→
A week from Wednesday, the Seventh Circuit will hear oral arguments in Gaylor v. Mnuchin, the case in which the Freedom From Religion Foundation is challenging the constitutionality of the parsonage allowance.[fn1]
In anticipation of the oral arguments, Professor Anthony Kreis and I are hosting a preview of the case this Wednesday, October 17, at noon. It will be in room 105 of the Corboy Law Center, 25 E. Pearson St., Chicago, IL 60611. There will be pizza, soda, and some great discussion. If you’re free for that hour (and, of course, in or near Chicago), I’d love to see you there! RSVP here. Continue reading “Seventh Circuit Preview: Gaylor v. Mnuchin”→
I grew up in the north suburbs of San Diego and, while I haven’t lived in Southern California in a couple decades now, I try to keep a vestigial self-identification as a Southern Californian.[fn1] Part of that self-identification is listening to the Voice of San Diego podcast; it keeps me vaguely up-to-date on current politics in San Diego.
By now I’m sure you’ve read the New York Times story about the Trump gift tax evasion (or, if not that story—which is really, really long—at least a summary of it). There is a lot in there, and I suspect it’ll inspire more than a couple posts here, but I wanted to lead off with the statute of limitations.
Because let’s be real: I’ve always thought of the statute of limitations as being three years or, if you substantially understate your gross income, six years, unless you don’t file a return, in which case it runs forever until you file a return. Since most of the alleged fraud occurred in the 1990s or earlier, even the longer statute would be long passed.
On Wednesday, October 24, the Seventh Circuit is going to hear arguments in the appeal of Gaylor v. Mnuchin. I’ve written about this parsonage allowance case a number of times in the past (see here and here for examples), but as a quick summary: section 107(2) of the Code says that “ministers of the gospel” don’t have to include rental allowances in gross income. Several years ago, the Freedom From Religion Foundation challenged this parsonage allowance on the grounds that it violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. They won in the district court, but the Seventh Circuit found that the plaintiffs didn’t have standing to challenge the provision.
The Seventh Circuit also suggested, in a footnote, that if they claimed a parsonage allowance and the IRS rejected their claim, they might have standing. So they did, the IRS did, and the district court again found the provision unconstitutional. And now the Seventh Circuit will weigh in (again).
As a side note, this provision (as well as a bunch of others) made their way into God and the IRS, the book I wrote that was recently published about tax accommodations of religious individuals. The fundamental purpose of the book was to illustrate the ad hoc nature of religious accommodations in the tax law, and develop a framework that could provide some consistency as Congress and the IRS consider providing these accommodations. Continue reading “When Religious Tax Accommodations Are Inconsistent”→
It is an oft repeated adage that if you are not paying for a product, then you are the product. This comment has traditionally been directed at products like Google, Facebook, and Instagram, but it is not just large software companies that are making use of consumer data as “payment” for their services. NPR recently published a story about a café in Rhode Island that is taking this one step further. They sell coffee in exchange for data.
According to the article, students and faculty at Brown University are the only customers allowed at the shop, and students get free coffee by allowing the coffee shop to gather and sell their data. The students also receive corporate pitches from the café’s workers. (Apparently professor data is not so valuable. They have to pay.) According to the article:
To get the free coffee, university students must give away their names, phone numbers, email addresses and majors, or in Brown’s lingo, concentrations. Students also provide dates of birth and professional interests, entering all of the information in an online form. By doing so, the students also open themselves up to receiving information from corporate sponsors who pay the cafe to reach its clientele through logos, apps, digital advertisements on screens in stores and on mobile devices, signs, surveys and even baristas. Continue reading “Paying with Data”→