Teaching and Scholarship with Heart
Nearing my completion of LL.M. degrees in Taxation and Corporate Law at NYU in 1990, I met with Career Services Director Irene Dorzbach to discuss NYC law firm jobs. Irene asked me what I most “enjoyed” about my previous work as a law firm associate. I replied that I found tax and corporate work fascinating from an intellectual perspective and (being somewhat literal) confided that what I most enjoyed at my firm were “things that don’t count – like researching and writing articles with partners and mentoring and training summer associates.” She said “sounds to me like you might enjoy teaching.” Incredulous, I asked “is that an option?” She assured me that it was -- forever changing my career path. From my first day in the classroom a few months later, law teaching has been a perfect vocation for me.
My tax scholarship "voice" developed more gradually. Initially I conceptualized my tax scholarship as a purely technical, intellectual endeavor to resolve current corporate tax issues. Over time, I discovered that I prefer to pursue tax topics about which I have strong feelings as well as intellectual curiosity -- scholarship with heart. For example, I enjoy writing about how our tax system treats taxpayers who incur expenses for medical treatment that relates fundamentally to identity and life plans. These taxpayers include would-be parents, who incur large expenses to bear children, and Rhiannon O'Donnabhain, a trans woman who was diagnosed with gender-identity disorder and incurred expenses for medically supervised hormone therapy and gender-confirmation surgery. The deduction Rhiannon took for her medical expenses reduced her 2001 taxes by $5,000. The IRS denied her deduction, arguing that her expenses were cosmetic not medical. The IRS fought her for nine years, until a majority of a divided United States Tax Court allowed her to deduct most of her medical expenses. After I read all of the case documents, which included 1,000 pages of briefs, exhibits, and trial transcripts, I concluded that the IRS arguments had covert moral overtones and were surprisingly weak from a tax perspective. I wrote about the case because I was concerned that the IRS might make similar disingenuous tax arguments in the future. Fairness and respect for others are core values for me and motivate me to challenge tax policies that unfairly burden disenfranchised groups.
In the classroom, I try to welcome diverse points of view. I encourage students to ground their opinions in facts and consider assumptions that are implicit in various points of view. My hope is to build bridges of communication between people who usually don’t speak to each other, without judging. It requires thinking about what we are for, not just what we are against. If we respect diverse perspectives and the dignity of all people, I believe that we can work towards solutions for many of our pressing societal problems.
Editor’s Notes: Professor Katherine (Katie) Pratt was awarded the 2017 Evening Division “Excellence in Teaching Award.” Her commencement remarks can be found in our “Petitions for Peace / Essays” section. You can also visit Professor Pratt’s Loyola Law School faculty page, which includes a list of her extensive scholarship (including links) as well as many of her other accomplishments. To read the full opinion in O’Donnabhain v. Commissioner, click here.