Notice & Comment

Tribute to Nina Olson, by Leslie Book

There has been a lot written in the last couple of years paying tribute to my friend and colleague Nina Olson. At Procedurally Taxing, in 2019, when Nina stepped down from her longtime position as National Taxpayer Advocate, there were 16 separate tributes attesting to how Nina educated and inspired, from her time as the founder of the Community Tax Law Project, the nation’s first freestanding low income taxpayer clinic, to her work in fashioning the modern Taxpayer Advocate Service. This year, the Pittsburgh Tax Review published an entire issue looking at her career.

In the introduction to the issue, Professor Danshera Cords provides an excellent overview and summarizes the articles:

We open with Nina E. Olson’s own reflections on the experiences leading to her appointment as the NTA and the office’s evolution under her leadership. Although she has completed a long and storied career as the NTA, Nina continues to be a “force of nature” and is pursuing a new avenue of advocacy as the Executive Director of the Center for Taxpayer Rights.

Professor T. Keith Fogg, who has known Nina since before she became his student at Georgetown University Law Center, discusses the history of the office of the NTA. Professor Fogg then explores the evolution of low income tax clinics and how they expanded during her tenure.

Special Trial Judge Diana Leyden, who served as the first New York City Department of Finance Taxpayer Advocate, discusses Nina E. Olson as a servant leader. This essay uses the idea of a servant leader as a lens through which to view Nina’s role in increasing state and local taxpayer advocates’ influence.

Professor Leslie Book’s essay considers the influence that Nina E. Olson’s thinking and writings about procedural due process have had on tax administration. In this essay, he explores how she used her belief in procedural justice to create a more taxpayer-centered system that improved tax administration, benefiting countless taxpayers.

My own essay explores Nina E. Olson’s strategic and successful use of the NTA’s annual reports to Congress to make a case for systemic legislative change. This essay considers how Nina used her platform as NTA to advocate for all taxpayers, not just the most vulnerable, and for adequate IRS funding. Each of these were essential elements to improving tax administration.

Professor Francine Lipman discusses how Nina E. Olson used the platform of the office of the NTA to create access to justice for millions of taxpayers through leadership on an issue. Professor Lipman explores how Nina used the office to fight for low-income taxpayers’ rights to obtain just treatment for EITC claimants. In the end, this encompasses all aspects of the role of the NTA, from direct advocacy for changes of law and policy to the inspiration and motivation of employees to the solicitation of volunteer pro bono lawyers to represent those who still need assistance navigating a complex and inhumane system.

The issue closes with a very heartfelt essay by Caroline Ciraolo, an attorney in private practice, discussing the influence Nina E. Olson has had as a mentor and role model in her career and how her shaping of the local TAS offices has aided tax practitioners.

I have had the privilege of knowing Nina for almost 25 years. I first saw her at an ABA Tax Section meeting in Washington DC when she and the late Professor Janet Spragens were discussing how tax lawyers could and should use their skills to help the unrepresented in tax cases (at the time that was often met with disbelief: tax and pro bono?). At a time when Congress was beginning its decades long shift to use the Internal Revenue Code to deliver more and more social benefits, Nina and Janet were prescient. Nina’s testimony was a key driver in ensuring that Congress provided funding for low income tax clinics. Nina also inspired me to leave private practice at a big Wall Street law firm and take a position as a clinical professor and director of a low income taxpayer clinic. Her impact is personal and far reaching.

And by the way, the book on Nina is not over. As founder and Executive Director of the Center for Taxpayer Rights, Nina is forging a new path, convening the International Conference on Taxpayer Rights, submitting amicus briefs, hosting tax chats, testifying before Congress, and leveraging her knowledge, experience and passion to improve tax administration.

Leslie Book is Professor of Law at Villanova University Widger School of Law.

This post is part of the ABA Administrative Law Section Series Celebrating Public Service; all the posts in the series are collected here

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