Tax Notes logo

Reflections on Nina Olson as the National Taxpayer Advocate

Posted on Mar. 8, 2019

Les, Christine and I are each writing to share our reflections on Nina as the National Taxpayer Advocate (NTA).  We each know her well and each from a slightly different perspective.  We all agree that she has provided a tremendous voice for taxpayers during her tenure as our advocate and that finding someone to pick up that voice with the same level of passion and knowledge she has brought to the position will be quite a challenge.


Nina called me out of the blue one day in 1992 and that’s how we met.  She had an idea to start a freestanding tax clinic in Richmond, Virginia.  Someone at Georgetown Law School where she was pursuing her LLM and where I taught as an adjunct professor suggested that she call because I was the District Counsel for the IRS in Richmond.  We talked for about an hour and her passion came through the phone with no trouble.  I thought she had a great idea and offered her some suggestions of people to contact not knowing if anything would come of this conversation.  I soon found out.

Nina did start a low-income taxpayer clinic (LITC) in Richmond.  It was not the first LITC but it was the first one that was not based at an academic institution.  As she had explained to me on the phone, she was appalled that tax lawyers would be called upon to work on landlord tenant cases or criminal cases in order to perform pro bono work.  She wanted a clinic that marshalled the tax bar into a force to fight for low income taxpayers.  I got to watch her do this with a front row seat.  As she built her clinic, she was regularly the representative of taxpayers whose cases were being handled by my office.  Today, we think of Nina as an advocate for all taxpayers but I experienced her as the advocate for individual taxpayers that her clinic represented.  As you can imagine she provides knowledgeable and passionate representation for her clients.  Not everyone at the IRS in Richmond hailed the coming of the new tax clinic.

Starting from scratch she built the Community Tax Law Project into a statewide clinic seeking to assist taxpayers who would otherwise go unrepresented.  She not only chased down tax lawyers to join her pro bono panel but she chased down donors from many different sources.  Even though she received enough donations and pro bono volunteers to keep the doors open, she hardly had enough to pay herself.  She lived a Spartan existence.  I have joked with her that I invited her regularly to come and speak to the students who volunteered at my office because that way we could feed her.  When IRC 7526 providing funding for LITCs came into existence, thanks in no small part to her efforts, she finally had a stable financial base for her clinic.  I remember her telling me of the shopping spree she was going to have to finally buy furniture for her office.  Even then her discussion was of funds for the clinic and not a decent salary for herself.

Eighteen years ago I attended her investiture at the IRS building in the theater on the 7th floor.  By that point she had made a name for herself testifying before Congress in the run up to the Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998 but few people in the tax world knew what they were in for when she became the second NTA.  The first NTA served only for a short time and operated pretty much under the radar of the tax world.  Nina was able to take the structure he had begun to build and turn it into a powerful voice for taxpayers that Congress could only have imagined when writing the statute creating the position.

When I began teaching at Villanova in 2007, my role vis a vis Nina had come full circle.  Now she was the IRS and I was the clinician.  One of her many jobs as NTA is to oversee the administration of the grant funds created by IRC 7526.  Just as she worked hard to create the grant funds, she has worked hard to maintain and increase those funds.  She was not my adversary the way I had been hers when she was a clinician but she was my grant funder.  Never having taken a clinic in law school, I took from Nina’s model in developing my role as a clinician.  She has done a great job of nurturing clinicians and clinics around the country.  While she has many responsibilities as the NTA, I suspect that few of her responsibilities hold the same place in her heart as clinics and the low income taxpayers they serve.

Nina’s achievements as the NTA are many.  Her annual reports provide an amazing resource to Congress, the IRS, academics and anyone interested in taxes.  The Taxpayer Bill of Rights which she promoted and sheparded into adoption by the IRS and then by Congress creates aspirational goals for the relationship between taxpayers and the IRS and will continue to evolve as a resource for taxpayers with conflicts with the IRS.  Her many, many times testifying before Congress to explain the importance of some act or some omission has helped to guide legislation in ways that we can only guess.  Of course, her work inside 1111 Constitution Avenue is probably the most important but the most difficult for outsiders to assess.

Hat’s off, Nina.  You have had a great run.

Subject Areas / Tax Topics
Copy RID