On February 28, Indiana University Maurer School of Law’s Tax Policy Colloquium, hosted this year by my colleague David Gamage, welcomed Vanessa Williamson from the Brookings Institution. Vanessa presented a report that is due to be released at the end of March on a “Filer Voter” experiment she conducted at Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites in Cleveland, Ohio and Dallas, Texas.
For those who may not be familiar with it, VITA is an IRS-run program that offers free tax return preparation (generally federal and state) for taxpayers who made $54,000 in income or less (for 2018) and meet certain other requirements. An IRS web page provides training materials and certification tests for volunteers. The IRS works with local groups in that it provides VITA grants to partner organizations. For example, in Bloomington, the VITA program is run by United Way of Monroe County.
Vanessa’s Filer Voter experiment involved offering some taxpayers who come to VITA sites for tax-return preparation the opportunity to register to vote. The experiment was structured as follows: Each VITA session was divided in half by time, and within each session, the first half or second half was randomly assigned the treatment of offering voter registration, and the other half of the session was the control. The study included collection of demographic information and consent forms from taxpayers in both the treatment and control groups. Continue reading “IU Tax Policy Colloquium: Williamson, Filer Voter: An Experiment Testing Voter Registration at Tax Time”→
Transparency is a widely accepted judicial norm. It increases courts’ accountability and thereby increases the confidence and trust litigants and the general public have in courts’ decisionmaking. The comparatively limited access afforded to Tax Court documents is a longstanding issue. The reason Tax Court transparency differs from that of other courts is partly structural, in that the Tax Court isn’t as neatly situated in the federal government’s org chart as Article III courts, administrative agencies, or even Article I courts such as the Court of Federal Claims. (In fact, even which branch of government the Tax Court is located in has presented a puzzle.) Accordingly, the Tax Court traditionally has created many of its own rules and procedures, such as ones governing access to its documents. This means that the question is also partly cultural. As discussed below, access to Tax Court documents has increased over time, and the appointment of several new Tax Court judges may mean that we see further changes in the future.
In the past, the Tax Court’s more limited transparency has sometimes violated judicial norms and has sometimes created access inequities. For example, although the Tax Court is required by statute to make its reports and evidence “public records open to the inspection of the public,” for years the Tax Court kept its Summary Opinions confidential, which I protested in 1998 in a short Tax Notes article called “Tax Court S Cases: Does the ‘S’ Stand For Secret?”. Although Summary Opinions lack precedential value, they are Tax Court opinions, revealing how the judge deciding the case (typically a Special Trial Judge) thinks about the issues. The Tax Court’s practice of sharing those opinions only with the parties to the case meant that the IRS had a copy of every Summary Opinion but taxpayers typically could not access the opinions in other Small Tax Cases (S cases). This created an uneven playing field. Secrecy can also lead to suspicion of favoritism or other inequities, concerns that existed in an analogous situation, in the era when the IRS did not make Private Letter Rulings (PLRs) public but large firms collected them. Litigation challenging this lack of transparency resulted in legislation, requiring PLRs to be disclosed (with taxpayer information redacted). Continue reading “Increased Transparency in the U.S. Tax Court: Has the Moment Arrived?”→