Professor Linda Sugin has a broad and unique approach to tax law.
For Fordham Law Professor Linda Sugin, taxes are not simply an April 15 concern; they are a fascinating topic of law and policy worthy of year-round, in fact decades’ worth of, study. She examines taxation from countless angles, including its consequences for charities, its relation to constitutional law, and its effect on the most fundamental facets of American life. Her provocative scholarship distinguishes her from her fellow tax law peers, and her teaching on the subject provides her students with the context needed to navigate the tortuous codes and complex laws associated with taxes.
As an undergraduate at Harvard, Sugin became interested in law while taking classes on government; during law school, she found tax law to be a rewarding marriage of innovative problem solving and quantitative logic.
“There are often right and wrong answers in tax,” she says. However, the field is not completely without ambiguity, and Sugin appreciates the space it gives her to generate imaginative approaches to legal questions.
“It’s quite varied,” she says. “I think that tax lawyers are quite creative.”
Sugin’s unique, multifaceted perspective on tax law has afforded her a special place in the world of tax scholarship. She is the author of a textbook for basic income tax courses, The Individual Tax Base: Cases, Problems and Policies in Federal Taxation, which offers students a comparative income/consumption tax perspective onthe U.S. taxation system.
“It was the first book that really took a sustained look at the comparison between income taxes and consumption taxes. The U.S. system is called an income tax, but it’s actually a hybrid of an income tax and a consumption tax,” Sugin says.
Sugin uses the book for her Income Taxation class, where she strives to expand her students’ understanding of a system that many lawyers might deride as bean counter territory.
“I stress that tax is very important to many things that students wouldn’t think tax is important for. Tax law is incredibly influential in designing the kinds of choices that people are faced with and the way that society operates,” she says.
For example, the tax system doesn’t just affect overtly economic issues, such as deciding which job to take, Sugin explains. It also affects things we don’t always associate with tax, like healthcare and whether you own your house. Tax law is a thematically rich subject precisely because it permeates all areas of life, and Sugin mines these riches for her scholarship. One area she is interested in is the relation of taxes to ideas of justice.
“Tax is important because it seems to be the most promising of all legal regimes in which we actually try to respond to questions of inequality and distributive justice,” Sugin says. “Much of my scholarship is about that: how we should think about fairness in the tax system and what fair taxes look like.”
In addition to ideas of justice and equality, Sugin explores how taxes affect charities, nonprofit organizations that are regulated primarily through tax laws. Her study of charities starts with a fundamental question.
“The whole design of corporate law depends on the relationship that the business has between shareholders and boards of directors. For nonprofit organizations, there are no shareholders. All the questions that are answered by thinking about the shareholders must be reengineered. What would you do if you didn’t have shareholders? That’s where you begin,” she explains.
Sugin is adept at continually finding a new perspective on tax law. She is currently writing a paper, “Invisible Taxpayers,” that explores the interplay of tax and constitutional law. It discusses how “the courts have increasingly shut down opportunities for people harmed in the tax system to bring cases,” Sugin says.
While Sugin often focuses on the human element in tax law, the facts-and-figures aspect continues to appeal to her. Her numbers-based interest came in handy this year and last as she chaired the Law School’s Long Range Planning Committee. One of the committee’s accomplishments was introducing a new course, Quantitative Methods for Lawyers, into the curriculum. The innovative one-week class educates 1L students on basic financial topics such as cost-benefit analysis, how markets work, and a section that Sugin teaches on the time value of money. The goal of the course is to prepare future lawyers for practical problems they may face in their legal jobs.
“There are philosophical underpinnings to my work,” she says. “I see myself as a counterpoint to many of the law and economics tax scholarship that is still dominant.”
While perhaps more philosophical, Sugin’s scholarship is no less practical. Looking at our current tax system, she sees space for reform. Full taxation of capital income, for instance, would be a big improvement to the current system, but as she explains, “I’m not holding my breath for full-scale reform. I am, however, hopeful that we can make small changes that would make the law fairer, more efficient, and more effective.”