On May 10, 2021, at the ABA Tax Section’s May Tax Meeting, the Section awarded the 2021 Janet Spragens Pro Bono Award to Susan Morgenstern.
This award, established in 2002, recognizes individuals or law firms for their outstanding and sustained achievements in tax pro bono activities in tax law. Recipients have, through years of service, demonstrated an ongoing commitment to pro bono activities, particularly in the areas of federal and state taxation. Janet Spragens received the award at the 2006 Midyear Meeting in recognition of her dedication to the development of low-income taxpayer clinics throughout the United States, and the award was renamed in her honor in 2007.
Susan has been a pioneer and giant in the low-income tax law field since the Low Income Tax Clinic (LITC) program began. Susan started one of the first LITCs in the nation in Cleveland, Ohio—before most legal aid organizations had even recognized the relevance of tax for their clients. Susan worked to expand the program in her region and across the country, working tirelessly to form working groups and advance tax policy and administration, particularly for survivors of domestic violence. She was instrumental in developing the IRS approach to that issue in innocent spouse cases.
Susan’s leadership was recognized when she was selected as the Local Taxpayer Advocate in Cleveland, a position in which she again distinguished herself with innovative outreach strategies and passionate work with vulnerable communities such as victims of domestic violence and the Amish. She sets the standard for thinking outside the box and challenging others to do the same. Currently, she serves the National Taxpayer Advocate in a policy role where she continues to challenge tax law and administration to meet the needs of low-income taxpayers.
Susan has served the Tax Section well, steering our programming for pro bono and LITC attorneys for nearly two decades through a variety of leadership roles, culminating in an impactful term as Chair of the Pro Bono and Tax Clinics Committee from 2018-2020. In a leadership capacity, she seeks to increase the involvement and to empower the voices of as many members as possible. She also serves on a number of administrative committees for the Section and helps guide and administer the public service fellowship program. As a treasured source of guidance and wisdom for the Tax Section, she has been nominated to serve on the Section’s leadership Council in the fall.
In addition to her creative and impactful lawyering, Susan is a devoted mentor and friend to anyone who shows a passion and desire to be involved in the low-income tax movement. Despite working around the clock, she is never too busy to provide career advice, connect a new lawyer with the right resource, explain a complicated concept, introduce members of the community to each other, or just provide a sounding board and listening ear.
Judge Peter Panuthos in his nomination letter said, “One of Susan’s written submissions when she was a legal aid lawyer started with an opening line ‘How can I achieve systematic reform for poor people?’ My experience… is that she has dedicated her career to work at answering this question.” ■