The Distinguished Service Award is the highest honor awarded by the Section of Taxation of the American Bar Association. The award is given to individuals who have had a distinguished career in taxation and who have provided an aspirational standard for all tax lawyers to emulate. The 2021 recipient of this award is Judge Peter J. Panuthos, Special Trial Judge of the United States Tax Court since 1983 and Chief Special Trial Judge from 1992 to 2017, who has, through remarkable legal and leadership ability, made a unique contribution to the tax dispute process, especially in response to the needs of self-represented taxpayers.
One of the greatest privileges of our service at the Tax Court has been the opportunity to work with Chief Special Trial Judge Panuthos on countless cases, issues, and projects to which he has brought his special expertise. Our joint work has included numerous legal and procedural issues and matters of judicial administration and reflects his lifelong commitment to improving access to justice for all litigants, especially self-represented petitioners.
The Regent Restaurant and Bar
Judge Panuthos, back then simply Peter Panuthos, was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. As he grew up, he gained a deep understanding of the everyday joys and burdens of people by working long hours at the Regent Restaurant and Bar at 116th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem. The Regent, owned by his family, was open 24/7. Peter began working there when he was 15 years old, and often worked the overnight shift. Duties of that shift included placing bar stools on the bar at 4 a.m. (when liquor could no longer be served but night owls could order a full dinner), cleaning the floors, and returning the stools to the floor at 8 a.m.
Peter has described the Regent Restaurant and Bar as a “kitchen, living room, bar, and bank” for police, teachers, seamen, and the unemployed. A bank? The Regent’s role as an informal bank stemmed from the fact that Peter’s father accepted IOUs from patrons who were short on cash and could not pay for the food or drinks then consumed. Many of those IOUs were never collected. Peter’s father did not insist on payment from many less fortunate folks who for one reason or another were simply unable to pay. In later years seeing how Judge Panuthos extended kindness to all—attorneys and self-represented petitioners in and out of the courtroom, law clerks, other Court staff, and colleagues—we might wonder if he is recalling lessons learned from his father’s treatment of the patrons at the Regent.
Beyond the Regent—Formal Education
After graduating from Brooklyn’s Erasmus Hall High School in 1961, Peter attended Bernard Baruch School of Business, City College of New York, from 1961 to 1963; and Bryant College, Providence, R.I., where he graduated in 1966 with Honors and on the Dean’s List. He later earned a J.D. in 1969 from Suffolk University School of Law, where he ranked 8th in a class of 218 and served on the Law Review. Finally, he earned an L.L.M. in Taxation from Boston University Law School in 1972.
Assistant District Counsel in Boston, Office of Chief Counsel, Internal Revenue Service
Peter served as Trial Attorney in the Office of Chief Counsel, Boston, from 1970 to 1976. From 1976 to 1983 he was Assistant District Counsel in that office and managed tax litigation in the Tax Court on behalf of the Commissioner of Internal Revenue for many trials and matters conducted in the New England area. During those more than 12 years he provided legal advice to all components of the IRS and supervised attorneys and staff in performing that work in hundreds of cases. Those who worked with him benefitted from his considerable litigation skills and his gifts as a mentor.
Charles Maurer, an IRS attorney supervised by Peter in Boston back in the day, had much to add to this introduction, but space restrictions require that we include only a comment or two. Charles noted Peter’s sensitivity to people’s feelings and how he always treated litigants and colleagues with respect. According to Charles, “At a professional level you can look at what Peter has done and what he has accomplished, but in Peter’s case it is also significant how he did it and how he treated people.” Our sentiments exactly!
Service as a Special Trial Judge of the United States Tax Court
Because of his prominence and reputation earned as Assistant District Counsel in Boston, in 1983 Peter Panuthos was, at age 39, appointed by Chief Judge Ted Tannenwald as a Special Trial Judge of the Tax Court. When Peter was interviewed by a committee of Judges at the Court in 1981 it has been reported that Judge Arnold Raum, who encountered Peter on many trial sessions in Boston, reported to his colleagues that Peter was the first best choice for appointment. Peter was surprised to hear this story since Judge Raum was not necessarily known for complimenting lawyers who appeared before him.
Congress enacted IRC section 7463 in 1969, giving certain taxpayers the option of electing “small tax case” status. The Court then established simplified procedures for “small” cases. Over the years these so-called “small” cases have comprised about one-half of the Tax Court’s docketed cases. But “small” is in the eyes of the beholder. That is, under current limits, a deficiency case can be tried under the “small tax case procedures” if the amount in dispute is $50,000 or less per tax year. If, for example, an audit cycle covers three years, the amount in dispute can be far from “small” in the eyes of a large majority of taxpayers.
Over the years special trial judges have tried and decided almost all of these “small” tax cases. In addition, during the explosion in the number of Tax Court cases relating to partnerships and individual tax shelters in the early and mid-1980s, STJs also handled a large number of tax shelter cases, each comprising hundreds, and some even thousands, of cases in consolidated groups. These partnership cases, the “small” tax cases, and the then-practice of holding weekly motions sessions in the District of Columbia usually presided over by STJs, provided the heavy and varied case load of the special trial judges, including of course Judge Panuthos.
Included in the more than 1,000 opinions authored by Judge Panuthos since 1983 are 18 published opinions deciding many important procedural issues facing parties in the Tax Court. One does not get very far researching the Tax Court’s procedural jurisprudence without encountering an opinion authored by Judge Panuthos. Issues decided include innocent spouse, interest abatement, collection, whistleblower, transferee liability, bankruptcy, penalties and additions to tax, and pleadings and practice in deficiency cases.
Service as Chief Special Trial Judge
In 1992 Special Trial Judge Panuthos was appointed by Chief Judge Lapsley Hamblen to serve as Chief Special Trial Judge. As noted, he served as the Chief Special Trial Judge for 25 years from 1992 to 2017, an accomplishment not likely to be duplicated. In that capacity, he managed and led the work of as many as 16 other special trial judges in the performance of their work, all the while carrying a full case load of his own. Peter’s teaching experiences will be touched upon in more detail later, but his role as a teacher and mentor to the many special trial judges he supervised was no small part of his day-to-day activities at the courthouse, all the while handling and managing a caseload of his own. His good judgment and easygoing disposition resulted in regular “walk-in” visits by the other special trial judges looking for guidance and/or advice on one matter or another.
Approach to the Low Income Taxpayer Clinics
In the years in which he conducted and managed tax litigation for the Commissioner (1970–83), Judge Panuthos often observed the distress of taxpayers who were self-represented. Their distress ranged from discomfort to fear to anger. He recognized that every technical tax issue involving individual petitioners came with a human face and human emotions. He knew that these emotions and reactions could be greatly eased if the petitioner had the assistance of a tax attorney. But, as important as the case may have been financially, most were not large enough, or at least the taxpayer could not afford, to retain a tax attorney. It would be ideal if a way could be found to provide pro bono assistance for these petitioners. Judge Panuthos recognized early that low income taxpayer clinics (LITCs) provided a means to solve this problem.
In his early years at the Court (the mid-1980s) there were only a handful of these clinics; most operated as clinical teaching programs at law schools, such as American University, Villanova University, Boston University, University of Minnesota, and University of Denver. Also, independent programs were created, such as the pioneering Community Tax Law Project, founded by Nina Olson, and later, tax programs operated by legal service organizations. Judge Panuthos devoted his considerable talent towards nurturing these programs and strengthening their relationship with the Tax Court. Over the years his efforts helped bring about Court policies such as rules and procedures allowing students to represent petitioners in the Tax Court if supervised by an experienced Tax Court practitioner, and sending information to petitioners in English and Spanish in what are informally called “stuffer notices”, which provide contact information for LITCs serving the city requested for trial by the petitioner.
The number of LITC programs representing Tax Court petitioners and participating in Tax Court calendar calls has grown from a handful in the 1980s to 128 in April 2021 (comprising 42 law schools, 2 non-law schools, and 84 non-academic programs, e.g., community legal aid organizations). This expansion occurred for many reasons, including enactment of IRC section 7426 in 1998, which established a grant program administered by the Taxpayer Advocate Service for LITCs, which assists taxpayers in dealing with the IRS and the Tax Court. But Judge Panuthos’ own considerable personal impact—in terms of the long number of years, his effectiveness, and his devotion to providing access to justice for Tax Court petitioners—cannot be overstated.
The number of calendar call programs operated by tax sections of state and local bar associations has also expanded. Attorneys, including many members of the Section of Taxation, who work in and lead these programs, attend calendar calls and consult with petitioners without entering an appearance. In the 1980s, these programs operated only in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego, following the model established by Karen Hawkins in San Francisco. As of this writing, calendar call programs are operated in 14 cities by Tax Sections of seven state or local bar associations, including, for example, the Texas Bar Tax Section program, which operates in San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, El Paso, and Lubbock. Considered together, LITCs and calendar call programs provide otherwise unrepresented petitioners with the opportunity to consult with experienced tax attorneys in all or virtually all of the Tax Court’s 74 places of trial. The Tax Court may have one of the best programs for assisting self-represented parties operated by any Federal court.
An aside, and on a lighter note, around 2009 the Court considered using an automatic computer translation service to make LITC information more accessible to non-English speakers. The intended statement was something to the effect of “If you have a Tax Court case and do not have a lawyer, then you should contact a clinic as soon as possible”. Judge Panuthos asked his mother to read a computer-generated Greek translation of the intended statement. The result was something like “If you have a Tax Court case and you do not have a lawyer, then you should go to the hospital first”. The Court deferred implementation of automatic translations.
Around 2010, the Court began to consider an idea with special implications for self-represented petitioners, that is, a revision of the traditional D.C. motions sessions procedures to hold hearings on motions in a case in the city requested for trial by the petitioner instead of in D.C. The goal was to make attendance at hearings more convenient for self-represented petitioners and any needed witnesses. It turns out that Judge Panuthos had the same idea twenty years earlier. He located and provided a copy of his 20-year-old memo (pre-electronic) clearly stating the idea. This change was soon implemented by the Court as reflected in an amendment to Rule 50, Tax Court Rules of Practice and Procedure, effective May 5, 2011.
For many years Judge Panuthos recognized the need to allow pro bono and other attorneys to enter limited appearances for otherwise unrepresented petitioners in Tax Court cases. Judge Panuthos invited the Section of Taxation to submit a proposal to the Court. In 2019, after receipt by the Court of a proposal from the Section’s Court Procedure and Practice Committee, STJ Panuthos and STJ Diana Leyden perfected the proposal and the Court implemented a limited entry of appearance procedure.
Speaking for Judge Panuthos when he received the Tax Court’s Murdoch Award in 2012, the highest award bestowed by the Court on its judges, National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson described her impressions of Judge Panuthos when she met him in the 1980s soon after his appointment as a special trial judge: “I thought, well, what is he going to be able to do. But I met him, and boy, did I learn what he could do. ... You could see [his] magic hand working its way through the process. ...” Throughout the decades after the 1980s, what Taxpayer Advocate Olson described as Judge Panuthos’ “magic hand working its way through the process” can be seen, or at least is suspected to have been a major factor in, shaping these positive trends.
Leadership Positions in the International Association of Tax Judges
Judge Panuthos is a gifted spokesperson for the Tax Court. He has addressed continuing legal education programs sponsored by bar associations, law schools, and professional groups and many times each year throughout his 38 years (so far) of service as a Special Trial Judge. He presents information about the Court clearly, courteously, accurately, and in a way that gives the listener an understanding of the Court’s perspective. He prepares for each presentation as if it were his first, bringing original statistics, comments, and observations to each audience. Although the topics of his presentation might be repetitive, his presentations are not. Each comes with original thought and observations. Judge Panuthos has been called upon often and never refuses service to the ABA Tax Section. He has participated in too many panels to count. He recalls one such meeting where he participated in at least four panels, partially overlapping, and was seen running (he is former marathon runner) from one meeting room to another with files in tow.
Sometimes a questioner will have a suggestion for changing a particular Court policy. Judge Panuthos answers carefully and fully in a way that enables the questioner to understand whether there are barriers, legal or practical, to implementing what the questioner suggests, and, where applicable, to show that an alternative approach taken by the Court helps to achieve the questioner’s goal. By speaking effectively for the Court on these hundreds of occasions Judge Panuthos has improved public understanding of the Court and our role in the judicial system. Consistent with his general philosophy, Judge Panuthos now serves on the Section of Taxation’s Public Service Fellowship Committee. This important committee awards fellowships annually to recent law school graduates working in public interest tax law and provides grants to sponsoring organizations. Many of the Tax Court’s participating clinics have current and former fellows providing services to the low income taxpayer community.
Throughout his career Judge Panuthos has taken the time to teach and mentor law and accounting students in areas such as taxation, advocacy, evidence, court procedure, litigation, ethics, tax controversy, and mediation. He has served as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center; David A. Clarke School of Law, University of the District of Columbia; Columbus School of Law, Catholic University; and in the Graduate Tax Program at Bentley College. He volunteered his time for many years to serve as a judge in connection with a moot Tax Court program sponsored by the Tax Section of the Florida Bar Association, and he also has been a frequent instructor at trial advocacy programs conducted by the National Institute of Trial Advocacy (NITA).
Whatever the situation, Judge Panuthos presents his viewpoint with courtesy, modesty, and precise thinking, thoroughly supported by solid research based on the relevant legal authorities. He is always willing to do the thinking and work required to implement an idea. He projects kindness to everyone with whom he has contact—in the courtroom, his chambers, around the court, in the classroom, and, as is well known to this audience, in countless presentations to committees of the Section of Taxation. ■
 Depending on the context, also referred to herein as Peter Panuthos and Judge Panuthos.
 Judge Tannenwald received the Tax Section’s Distinguished Service Award in 1998.
 Nina Olson received the Tax Section’s Distinguished Service Award in 2017 when she was serving as the Taxpayer Advocate.
 The Texas program was initiated by then-San Antonio practitioner, now Tax Court Judge, Elizabeth Copeland.
 136 T.C. 611 (2011).
 ustaxcourt.gov, press release dated May 10, 2019.