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August 10, 2017 Pro Bono Matters

Tribute to Chief Special Trial Judge Peter Panuthos

By Special Trial Judge Diana Leyden, U.S. Tax Court, Washington, DC


Special Trial Judge Peter Panuthos is stepping down as Chief Special Trial Judge effective September 1, 2017.1   While Judge Panuthos will remain as a Special Trial Judge, a position he has held for 34 years, it is fitting that we take this opportunity to pay tribute to all that he has done for the United States Tax Court, low income taxpayer clinics (LITCs), and pro se petitioners. 

Judge Panuthos has served as Chief Special Trial Judge for 25 years.  During his remarkably long tenure, he has provided steady, consistent, and exceptional service to the Tax Court.  As Chief Special Trial Judge he has collaborated with the Tax Section and the LITCs to make the Tax Court a forum that internalizes the phrase “Equal Access to Justice”.  While it is impossible to capture all that Judge Panuthos has done and the impact of his service, I will try to summarize his contributions as a professional, colleague, and mentor during his tenure as Chief Special Trial Judge.

Humble Beginnings and the Importance of Family

Judge Panuthos grew up in Brooklyn, the son of Greek immigrants. His father operated a family business, the Regent Bar & Grill, on 116th Street and 7th Avenue.  Judge Panuthos started working for his father at the bar and restaurant at age 15.  He recalled that his judicial philosophy started at that time.  He observed merchant seamen, teachers, and police come by to eat, some treating it as a family dining room.  He also observed his father reach into a cigar box that he kept under the counter to hand cash to a customer who needed money in exchange for an IOU.  When the bar and restaurant were closed in the sixties, his family found many IOUs still in the cigar box.  His mother taught him by example how to help people for whom English was not their first language to navigate the systems.

Later when Judge Panuthos joined the IRS Chief Counsel Office as a trial attorney in Boston, he encountered taxpayers who reminded him of the people he met in Brooklyn.  He understood that without an attorney unrepresented taxpayers had difficulty in navigating the complex world of taxation.  Later, as a Special Trial Judge, he discovered that the Tax Court proceedings scared pro se taxpayers.  From the beginning of his tenure as a Special Trial Judge through his tenure as Chief Special Trial Judge, Judge Panuthos has worked tirelessly to make the Tax Court easier to navigate and to fulfill the Tax Court’s mission for equal access to justice. 

Exceptional Service to the Tax Court

As Chief Special Trial Judge, Judge Panuthos has also devoted himself to effective leadership and efficient administration. In 2012 he was recognized for his exceptional service to the Tax Court with its highest award, the J. Edgar Murdock Award.  As the late Judge Howard A. Dawson remarked in the ceremony to award Judge Panuthos the Murdock Award:  “In Act II, scene 5 of Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare wrote:  [S]ome are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”  You, Peter, fit squarely in the second category because you have achieved greatness as a Chief Special Trial Judge of this Court.” 

Judge Panuthos is both a wonderful leader and skillful administrator.  He served as a vital member of and an adviser to several important committees of the Tax Court—the Human Resources Committee, the Legislation Committee, the Security Committee, and the Employee Dispute Resolution Committee.  At one time, he had as many as 13 Special Trial Judges under his direct supervision.  Barely a day goes by when the Special Trial Judges don’t ask Judge Panuthos for guidance or advice.  He is the author of more than 1,000 opinions, more than 500 of which have addressed novel issues regarding the Tax Court’s jurisdiction in cases involving transferee liability, interest abatement, collection due process hearings, and innocent spouses. 

Judge Panuthos has also mentored many law clerks during his tenure.  At the ceremony awarding Judge Panuthos the Murdock Award, his first law clerk, Mark Dinkel, recalled that while Judge Panuthos would challenge his research and missing facts, Judge Panuthos treated him with kindness, shared insights, and made him a better lawyer.  Another law clerk, Jean Boyle, remarked that Judge Panuthos not only has the intellect, passion, and dedication to be a Special Trial Judge, but is also caring, incredibly respectful, dedicated to friends and family, and has a devilish smile and an infectious laugh.

Judge Panuthos has also participated in organizations and conferences that consider the similarities and differences of tax courts in other countries.  He was one of the initial members of the International Association of Tax Judges (IATJ), an organization representing tax judges from all around the world.  As a member he volunteered his expertise, his contacts, and his skills to help develop the organization, and he currently sits on the board of the IATJ.  He has stepped up and volunteered to assist any and all attendees at IATJ conferences with his advice and direction.  Judge Panuthos has also participated in the first two International Taxpayer Rights conferences sponsored the IRS National Taxpayer Advocate.  At both the inaugural and second conferences, he participated in the panel: “Building Trust II:  Safeguards on Tax Agency Power”.  Judge Panuthos’ participation in these programs generated robust and informative exchanges about procedures and programs of tax courts to assist pro se petitioners.

Exceptional Service to Pro Se Petitioners

Judge Panuthos used his appointment to the Tax Court to continue his dedication to assisting the unrepresented in navigating the Tax Court’s rules and procedures.  Judge Panuthos served on the Tax Court’s Pro Bono Committee, always providing thoughtful ideas.  Before 2007, LITCs could enter into a contract with the Tax Court whereby LITCs could send information to pro se petitioners and appear before the Tax Court.  These LITCs agreed to certain conditions and, in exchange, the Tax Court agreed to send out stuffer notices to unrepresented taxpayers with contact information for the LITCs.  Judge Panuthos worked with then Chief Judge John Colvin in 2007 to replace individual contracts with LITCs with a transparent procedure to articulate the requirements for participation by LITCs and to add that information to the Tax Court’s website. 

The new procedure provided the Tax Court with current information about the LITCs that participated in the Tax Court’s stuffer notice program and provided an easy way for a participating LITC to contact the Tax Court to obtain information about the its LITC stuffer notice program.  In 2008, Judge Colvin and Judge Panuthos worked to make a similar change to the bar-sponsored calendar call program. In 2017, the number of participating LITCs and bar-sponsored calendar call programs is 136.

Judge Panuthos has also actively contributed to the ABA Pro Bono and Tax Clinics Committee programs at the Section meetings.  Even in the early days when the committee was assigned a meeting time of 7:00 a.m. on Saturdays at the Section meetings, Judge Panuthos would show up prepared to update members on the Tax Court’s caseload and its LITC program.  He always prepared by bringing original statistics, comments, and observations aimed at clearly, courteously, and accurately giving the audience information regarding the Tax Court.

In 2014, the Section of Taxation, in recognition of Judge Panuthos’ outstanding and sustained achievements in pro bono activities and his inspiration to countless practitioners to participate in pro bono nationwide, awarded him the Janet R. Spragens Pro Bono Award.  In an article in the Section Newsletter, Armando Gomez, now former chair of the Section, wrote: “Those who have seen [Judge Panuthos] on the bench know that he strives day after day to ensure that every taxpayer who appears before him has a fair and just experience.”

We thank Judge Panuthos, for his 25 years of service as Chief Special Trial Judge of the Tax Court.  While Judge Panuthos will be stepping down as Chief Special Trial Judge, he will continue to serve as a Special Trial Judge. Therefore, this is farewell, but not goodbye.

1 Effective September 1, 2017, Special Trial Judge Lewis Carluzzo will begin serving as Chief Special Trial Judge.