Boris I. Bittker, the legendary emeritus professor of tax law at Yale, left us last week. He was in his late 80s and had been living in an assisted living facility for a short time. In the coming days, there will be many tributes. Likely none will do him justice. This is my feeble attempt to get my experiences with the man down into words.
Please bear with me. I have many fond memories.
Who was Bittker? He was one the pioneers, if not the leading pioneer, who turned the federal tax law into an academic discipline, just as the income tax was becoming a factor in the lives of everyday Americans. The law school casebook that he published in 1954 (at the age of 38) is now in its 13th edition. The professional treatise that he co-wrote on corporate taxation, now in its seventh edition, is still the starting point for any serious discussion of taxation of corporations and shareholders. His "big treatise" -- a five-volume masterpiece that was released in the early 1980s -- is still being updated, and it is heavily used by tax practitioners throughout the country. Capable co-authors have taken over the revising duties, but the Bittker genius is still evident in all of the publications that bear his name.
So strong were Bittker's analytical and writing talents that an entire publishing house, Warren Gorham & Lamont, was built with his treatise as its foundation. Now a part of Thomson, the WGL imprint remains a powerhouse. So many copies of Bittker books have been sold that he was said to have stopped drawing a salary at Yale long before he stopped teaching a full course load, and even overloads, there.
(In the early days, a Bittker book or two was published by a small Hamden, Connecticut publisher that was rumored to be owned by Bittker himself. Some even speculated that the company, which as I recall was called Federal Tax Press, might have been a dreaded "collapsible corporation." Any time I ever heard the matter discussed, there were wry grins all around. No doubt the master of the tax laws had a few tricks up his sleeve.)
Though a major star in the tax pantheon, Bittker had many other scholarly interests throughout his career. His writings included works on the Constitution, race relations, civil rights, federal courts, and jurisprudence. A collection of his essays, compiled in 1989, ran more than 700 pages and showed the breadth of Bittker's interests and erudition.
Along about the age at which most folks retire, Bittker decided to put aside the tax code and spend more time with constitutional law. One result was an elaborate treatise on the Commerce Clause, released in 1999, when he was aged 83. "I bequeath the income tax to you," he wrote me back in the early '90s. As if those shoes could ever be filled.
In recent years, Bittker also saw one of his visions fulfilled as Yale started publication of Legal Affairs, a law journal designed to re-emphasize "the link between law and actual life" -- a link that's too often missing in high-end legal scholarship these days.
With all due respect to all the other wonderful people for whom I have worked over the years, Bittker was without a doubt the best boss I ever had. I served as his research assistant for a semester when I was in law school, and after graduation I did some modest drafting for him in connection with his "big treatise."
My first contact with Bittker was an unobtrusive notice tacked up on the Stanford Law Review bulletin board sometime early in 1977: He was looking for a recent law school graduate to serve as his research assistant for the following academic year. Being only a second-year student at Stanford, I had no hope of fitting that bill, and although I enjoyed my tax courses, my grades in them were somewhere north of pitiful and south of outstanding. But I had a strong personal (read: romantic) interest in being in Connecticut that fall, and through John Kaplan of the Stanford faculty, I approached Bittker with a slightly modified counterproposal.
There ensued a series of generosities on Bittker's part that revealed him, sight unseen, to be a remarkable individual. With his help, I was able to formulate a proposed course of study as a "special student" at Yale Law School that was so strong, it stood on its own merits as an educational experience rather than a mere facilitation of "spousal equivalency." As a result, the Stanford administration, which always coveted Bittker's talents, granted me a leave of absence for a semester, and agreed to accept any academic credits I might succeed in earning at Yale.
As it turned out, Stanford's decision was made for the right reasons. The romance of that spring wilted considerably by summer. But in any event, thanks to "BIB," as he often signed himself, I found myself in New Haven late that August, eagerly enrolled in courses with Marvin A. Chirelstein (an excellent educator and author on finance and taxes) and Ellen A. Peters (who soon thereafter joined the Connecticut Supreme Court). Of course, as promised, I also signed up for substantial independent research in tax with Bittker.
The Yale experience was stimulating and exciting -- I marveled at all the Ivy League hoopla, and almost instantly began working for a local volunteer radio station at night -- but my personal finances were a disaster. Again Bittker came through, not only with paid employment as a source-checker on his treatise, but also with magnanimous advances.
These kindnesses were only a beginning, however. As my mentor, he showed the utmost patience. Traditional law school tax courses, which were all I had had in the field, generally do not get around to research. Thus, the elementary tasks that led me deep into the bowels of the Yale law library also prompted seemingly endless questions of the type asked only by the greenest of newcomers. I wince now as I recall myself parading, sourcechecker's green pen in hand, down the second-floor corridor to this intellectual giant's office, there to stammer my way through the day's problems -- where and how to find basic sources, what everyday abbreviations meant, how a relatively simple aspect of the statutory scheme worked.
Despite a whirlwind of other activities around him, Bittker never failed to explain things to me, clearly, kindly, carefully, several times where necessary. I grew in leaps and bounds.
Working with a Bittker manuscript was every bit as good as, if not better than, reading a finished Bittker text. Even at an early stage in his drafting, one could enjoy masterful exposition with extraordinary style -- literate, crisp, lively, good-natured, often humorous. The sparkling metaphors, the literary allusions, the perfect balances between rule and rationale, restatement and anecdote, seriousness and whimsy -- all were there, even in early drafts. What set the drafts apart, though, were the fragments they contained -- half-notes to himself, tangential questions scribbled down for additional thinking, reminders of needs for additional verification or analysis. These took the source-checker into rooms of ideas that were closed to visitors by the time the mansion was opened for public viewing. The Yale cafeteria workers were on strike that fall, and the law library was under a noisy reconstruction, but my concentration never flagged. I rightly sensed myself to be an insider to a truly special process.
If Bittker's patience and encouragement sustained me, his impeccable manners and heartfelt expressions of gratitude when my assistantship concluded in 1978 inspired me. I returned to California with my tax roots firmly established, and my new knowledge and enthusiasm ready to support many new branches.
The next time I reached out to Bittker was in 1979, between my judicial clerkship and private practice. Again, the promptings were more practical than scholarly: I was not anxious to join the busy law firm too quickly, but certainly desirous of three square meals a day and a place to sleep. The two sets of considerations added up to a need for temporary employment. Again, it was the "BIB big treatise" to the rescue.
This time, my task was to prepare the first draft of an entire chapter -- much more challenging for me and much more risky for Bittker than my merely source-checking what he had written. But any jitters I may have had turned out to be unwarranted, for the maestro was standing behind me. I began to find in my mail in Corvallis, besides much needed paychecks and advance checks, dozens of informative notes and photocopied excerpts of helpful materials, all postmarked New Haven, which kept the draft on track. Unfortunately, as was often characteristic of my work for "BIB," I was late in finishing the draft, and my product could never rival a Bittker manuscript. But a working draft it was, and the project left me more impressed than ever by the good professor's noblest qualities.
When the treatise was released in 1981, to my pleasant surprise I found not only much of the structure and footnotes of my chapter intact, but also a more prominent thank-you in the introduction than was ever deserved. For years, attorneys and students of my acquaintance found to their dismay that they could not pass by the Bittker books in the tax library without my opening the treatise and pointing out that acknowledgment. It was, and is, a source of great pride.
The next year, I drafted another chapter for Bittker, to go into the then-unreleased last volume of the treatise. He liked my draft so well that he suggested that I expand it into a book. It took more than a decade, but after a number of false starts, I actually did just that, and my book came out under the WGL banner in the mid-1990s. Its success has made my life so much richer, literally and figuratively. I got many notes of congratulation when the work hit the stands, but the one I treasured most was from the guy who made it possible.
Over the years, Bittker morphed from my teacher, editor, and mentor to a good friend. We'd write each other from time to time, and the responses I'd get from "Borie" were often priceless. He liked to pen them right at the bottom of whatever I'd sent to him, and turn them right around in the mail to me. Always there were words of encouragement, and enthusiasm for my work.
The phone rang one day in the mid-1990s. It was Bittker. After a pleasantry or two, he got right down to business. He needed my legal help. And get this: It was on a personal matter of his own. That, dear reader, was my proudest day so far as a lawyer.
My last Bittker story is from just this past spring. One May day I picked up an unusual voice mail message, from a secretary at the Yale Law School. She was calling me at Bittker's request. He had been thinking about me, she said, and he wanted to know how I was doing. She let me know that he was now in assisted living, and she suggested that I might give him a call or write him a note. Between the lines, it sounded as though Bittker was sending this message out to numerous friends and co-workers from many decades.
Given all our "snail-mail" exchanges over the years, I decided to send my friend a letter, bringing him up to speed on some the latest doings in my life. I enclosed this picture. I told him this story. And I added this:
Just yesterday, in my annual spring cleaning, I came across my notes from Marvin Chirelstein's finance class 28 years ago. It reminded me once again of who I was, what you did for me, and how much that accounts for where I am and what I have today.Just after I mailed that off, I thought: Isn't that just like Boris. His health was failing, and yet he took it upon himself to give me, and no doubt many others, a chance to say goodbye. He never stopped giving, right up to the end.
You're always in my thoughts and prayers. Take care of yourself.
God rest Boris Bittker. We loved him, and we know that he loved us.