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  • YLS Mourns Death of Boris I. Bittker; Memorial Service Scheduled Dec. 11

Monday, September 12, 2005

YLS Mourns Death of Boris I. Bittker; Memorial Service Scheduled Dec. 11

Sterling Professor Emeritus of Law Boris I. Bittker, a preeminent authority on tax law, died on Thursday, September 8, 2005. Bittker was primarily known as a tax scholar but also made important contributions to the fields of civil rights law and constitutional law--and is remembered as a superb teacher. He was eighty-eight.

Dean Harold Hongju Koh said, "Boris Bittker was one of Yale's greatest citizens and legal scholars, and perhaps our greatest humanist. He was a remarkably influential and wide-ranging thinker, whose humanity informed his grasp of every detail of the tax code, as well as his setting forth the case for reparations for the horror of American slavery."

Bittker was born in Rochester, New York, on November 28, 1916. He graduated from Cornell University in 1938 and then received a law degree from Yale Law School in 1941. He clerked for Judge Jerome N. Frank on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit then worked as a staff attorney in the Lend-Lease Administration. During World War II, he served for two years in the U.S. Army, in the 42nd Infantry Division, and earned a Purple Heart and a Combat Infantryman's Badge. After the war, Bittker worked briefly in the office of the Alien Property Custodian in Washington, D.C.

In 1946 Bittker returned to YLS as an assistant professor, intending to try teaching for a short time. He stayed for nearly six decades, becoming a fixture at the school. He was promoted to associate professor in 1948, professor in 1951. He was named Southmayd Professor in 1958, then Sterling Professor of Law in 1970. He retired in 1983, becoming Sterling Professor Emeritus; however, he continued to come in to his office in the Law School every day and pursue his research and writing interests.

Bittker's scholarship in the area of tax law helped shaped the field. Says Michael Graetz, the Justus S. Hotchkiss Professor of Law: "Boris Bittker was a path-breaking scholar of federal tax law. His treatises on taxation cover the entire range of income and estate tax issues. They will be found on the shelves of every law or accounting firm in the nation which deals with tax issues."

Bittker's first articles treated technical questions in the federal tax code. Later articles took up major questions of tax policy, and became lodestars of the scholarly debate in their areas.

Bittker authored several casebooks and treatises on tax law, including Federal Income, Estate, and Gift Taxation (1955), Federal Income Taxation of Corporations and Shareholders (1959), and Taxation of Foreign Income (1960). Each book went into multiple editions and became an indispensable reference for other law teachers, practitioners, and judges. The sixth edition of Federal Income Taxation of Corporations and Shareholders (with J. Eustice) was published in 1994, for example.

At the time he retired in 1983, Bittker was praised by his colleague Elias Clark, the Lafayette S. Foster Professor Emeritus of Law, as having a "genius for writing the language of tax." Clark added, "The analysis was clear, readable, often humorous, and always insightful."

Bittker wrote about the ethics of being a tax lawyer in Professional Responsibility and Federal Tax Practice (1965). He also, according to John Simon, the Augustus E. Lines Professor Emeritus of Law, "opened up a new territory for tax scholarship: the tax treatment of charitable and other nonprofit organizations. In a series of five major articles he developed the first thoroughgoing explanation--and critique--of federal and state tax policies affecting America's 'third sector' and the constitutional implications of these policies."

In 1972, Bittker published The Case for Black Reparations, an analysis of whether African Americans could sue for reparations under current civil rights laws. The book was re-issued in 2003.

Guido Calabresi, former dean and Sterling Professor Emeritus of Law, notes: "His vision was enormous. No one was up to him in tax law. Yet in his work in constitutional law and race and the law, he foresaw the issue of reparations for slavery thirty years before almost anyone else."

In 1999, Bittker ventured into another byway of constitutional law, with the publication of his treatise on the Commerce Clause, Bittker on the Regulation of Interstate and Foreign Commerce. In all, Bittker wrote at least fifteen books and over a hundred articles. Many colleagues remember the steady noise of his typewriter emerging from his office.

Bittker was also a dedicated teacher, and a genial and respected presence at the Law School. Calabresi recalls, "He was the Law School counselor of dean after dean after dean. We would rely on his judgment in any kind of situation."

Bittker was a devoted environmentalist and served as a trustee of the National Resources Defense Council for many years. He was also on the board of directors of the New Haven Legal Assistance Association. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Law Institute. He taught as a visiting professor at many schools, including New York University, Stanford University, and the University of North Carolina. He testified as an expert in front of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate numerous times.

Bittker was an adventurous traveler and hiker for much of his life. He photographed the street life he observed in Europe, North Africa, and America, producing compassionate and carefully observed photographs that were exhibited at galleries as recently as last summer and published in the Yale Law Report.

Bittker is survived by his two children, Susan and Daniel. His wife Anne predeceased him. Bittker will be laid to rest this week in a private ceremony at New Haven's Grove Street Cemetery. A public memorial service will be held in the Law School Auditorium at 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, December 11, 2005, with a reception to follow in the Law School Dining Hall.