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NEO – A Series of Reflections

Posted on July 8, 2019

Nina Elizabeth Olson has served as the National Taxpayer Advocate (NTA) since March 1, 2001. She burst into the limelight of the national tax scene shortly after the film, The Matrix, made a splash with its protagonist, Neo. Of course the word neo has Greek roots much older than the film and serves as a combining form meaning “new,” “recent,” “revived,” “modified.” It’s safe to say that Nina brought something new to the tax world and that she modified tax procedure with her work over the past 18 years.

To provide a tribute to her impact on tax procedure and to her overall body of work as the NTA we have invited, and continue the invitation to any of our readers, tax practitioners to comment on her impact. We will run those comments during the month of July. I am sure this will not be the only tribute to Nina as she moves to the next phase of her career. Les and I are writing articles, along with several others, for a special edition of the Pittsburgh Tax Review that will be published next year.

I have begun work on my article for the law review. My sabbatical this semester has me living in my home town of Richmond when not traveling. This has provided me with the opportunity to go to the Community Tax Law Project which Nina founded in 1992 and review the records they maintain from her time there as founder and director. Because I was the district counsel for the IRS in Richmond at the time she started the clinic, I have a fair amount of familiarity with the early years of CTLP but the records provide an astounding picture of her passion, energy and vision. She carried those qualities into the NTA position making us forget that she was not the first NTA and that she was not an obvious choice for NTA based on her background.

Commissioner Rossotti plucked her from relative obscurity to fill this position.  Yes, she testified before Congress leading up to the 1998 Restructuring and Reform Act, and she had been recognized by the Virginia State Bar and Richmond Bar Association for her work in starting the first non-academic low income taxpayer clinic, but she did not have a huge profile.  I doubt he expected that this selection would overshadow and outlast almost any other personnel decision that he made while commissioner.

As others will discuss in their reflections, Nina has made a significant impact on tax procedure in ways both visible and invisible. Her work with the low income tax clinics and the Tax Court has created a situation in which almost everyone who files a Tax Court petition pro se receives correspondence offering the possibility of representation and also finds assistance at calendar call. This has made a significant difference on the disposition of Tax Court cases though I lack empirical data to prove this at present. She championed the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TBOR) and we are still learning what TBOR might mean to tax procedure as it plays out over time. Even if TBOR does not mean that taxpayers will win court cases citing to the provision, it could easily mean changes in manual provisions, regulations and sub-regulatory guidance that have an even greater impact than court decisions. She fought from the inside for many positions that have changed tax procedure in ways favorable to taxpayers and to the system as a whole.

As we celebrate her legacy, let’s look forward to the new NTA with the hope and expectation that the new NTA will carry on the fight to improve the system for taxpayers and create tax procedures that work better for taxpayers and the IRS.

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