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 2022 recipient of this award is Karen L. Hawkins, in recognition of her extensive devoted service to her former clients, the Internal Revenue Service, tax practitioners, and the tax system in general.
Karen has enjoyed a long and varied career that did not initially involve tax at all. Born and raised in New England, she attended the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, graduating with honors in English (Elizabethan & Jacobean Drama) in 1967. She then pursued a master’s degree in Contemporary American Literature, completing all but the thesis in that program in 1969. While studying, she served as a resident director of student personnel at the university.
In 1969, Karen switched coasts and moved to San Francisco. She first worked as a communications consultant for Pacific Telephone & Telegraph in San Francisco, from 1969 to 1973. Changing focus again, Karen returned to academia as the Assistant Dean of Student Affairs at the University of California, Davis in 1973. While at the university, she completed (in 1976) a master’s degree in Education with an emphasis on Organizational Development and Change. Also while at the university, Karen played a major role in the establishment of the first Women’s Center and oversaw implementation of Title IX throughout the Davis campus.
Karen enrolled in law school at the Golden Gate University School of Law in San Francisco, from which she received a JD degree in 1979. An MBA in tax from Golden Gate School of Business followed in 1981. While studying for her MBA, Karen undertook her first tax-related employment, working as a supervisor in the San Francisco and Oakland offices of Touche Ross & Co. (now Deloitte).
Karen began practicing “real” law in 1983, first as a solo practitioner and then from 1984 through 2009 with the firm of Taggart & Hawkins, in San Francisco and then Oakland. Her clients were primarily individuals involved in criminal or civil disputes with the Internal Revenue Service or the California state tax agencies. While she represented many solvent or even high net worth clients, Karen often took on pro bono matters for clients in particularly difficult situations or whose cases presented an opportunity to establish an important precedent. As is often the case in a tax controversy practice, these matters continued for years and involved a variety of issues. For example, inthe first in a series of three cases over a period of four years dealing with equitable innocent spouse relief, Karen prevailed in establishing that the Tax Court had jurisdiction to hear section 6015(f) cases, even in the absence of a statutory notice or collection due process notice (so-called “stand-alone” section 6015(f) cases). In Karen won relief for Ms. Ewing from joint tax liabilities on returns filed with her husband, even though she was still married and living with her spouse. The IRS appeal of Ewing II resulted in a Ninth Circuit reversal of the Ewing I decision finding the Tax Court lacked jurisdiction over stand-alone section 6015(f) cases, thereby indirectly mooting the relief granted in Ewing II in the process. Undeterred by her loss in the appellate court, Karen pursued a change in the statute to ensure Tax Court jurisdiction over all such cases in the future. With the support of Senator Dianne Feinstein, the statute was amended as the last piece of legislation passed by Congress during the 2006 legislative Another significant case involving the application of section 6015(f) was a ten-year quest for section 6105 relief for the widow of the former mayor of San Francisco who was left with enormous tax liabilities after the death of her husband when his many unknown financial transactions came to light.
Other precedential cases includewhich held that a third party with no legal relationship to a taxpayer under criminal investigation was entitled to notice under the third-party summons rules of section 7609 before collection action could be taken; the first Circuit Court decision allowing award of attorneys’ fees under section 7430 for prevailing in an appeal against the IRS for its pursuit of collection of an assessment based on an invalid notice of deficiency; and which awarded attorney’s fees after rejecting IRS efforts to concede the case on the eve of trial.
While engaged in a demanding private practice, Karen successfully juggled a number of other commitments. She taught research and writing at Golden Gate University School of Law and School of Taxation in the late 1970s and early 1980s and served as an adjunct professor in Golden Gate’s Tax LL.M. program in the 1990s. Over the years, Karen has written dozens of articles for publications such as the Journal of Tax Practice and Procedure, the Journal of Taxation, and The Tax Lawyer; and she has appeared regularly on panels at conferences sponsored by the ABA Tax Section, the California Tax Bar, the NYU Tax Institute, ALI-ABA, and many state bars and law schools. In addition, Karen started the first Tax Court Pro Se/Pro Bono program in the 1980s: that program has since grown into a national network sanctioned by the Tax Court.
From the beginning of her career, Karen has been an enthusiastic and hard-working member of many professional associations, participating in more committees, task forces, and speaking engagements than can be recited here. Her untiring work for the Taxation Section of the State Bar of California culminated in her service as its chair in 1995–1996. In the ABA Tax Section, she served as chair of the civil penalties subcommittee of the Civil & Criminal Tax Penalties Committee (1989–1995), co-chair of the Civil Penalties Task Force (1990–1992), Council Director (1998–2001), Vice-Chair for Professional Service (2001–2003), Chair of the Task Force on the Office of Professional Responsibility (2006–2007) and Chair-Elect of the Section (2008–2009). Her ascension to chair was disrupted by her stint in government service from 2009 through 2015, but after leaving government she served for a second time as the Chair-Elect of the Tax Section in 2016–2017 and then as Chair in 2017–2018.
In 2009, at the invitation of then-IRS Commissioner Shulman, Karen was appointed Director of the IRS’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR). Taking on this commitment necessitated leaving her law practice and relocating from California to Washington, DC, but Karen took on the challenge because of her long-standing interest in and dedication to enhancing professionalism among tax practitioners. Although she originally committed to staying in the position for four years, Karen remained six and one half. Her work during her tenure was both exhausting and exhaustive. Because she fervently believed that OPR’s primary function is to educate practitioners about their duties and responsibilities under the Title 31 regulations, Karen crisscrossed the country making an average of a hundred presentations per year to tax practitioners about their professional and ethical responsibilities to taxpayers and the tax administration system. She was intimately involved in the 2012 and 2014 Circular 230 amendments, including the IRS efforts to regulate unlicensed, unenrolled tax return preparers and extend Circular 230 and OPR’s jurisdiction over all of them. She still regrets that the courts declined to interpret OPR’s authority in that way.
Just prior to her departure from OPR in July 2015, an issue arose about the publication of final Circular 230 disciplinary opinions for public consumption: all final agency decisions published to that point were removed from OPR’s website and became unavailable to practitioners and the public. The issue remained unresolved for six years. Never one to abandon a cause she believes in, Karen encouraged Tax Analysts, a publisher on whose board she sits, to pursue publication of the OPR final agency decisions through a Freedom of Information Act request. The request evolved into litigation, with Tax Analysts successfully extracting a settlement from the IRS which ensures that all final agency decisions from 2014 forward will eventually be available for public consumption.
Needless to say, Karen’s indefatigable commitment to her clients and to the tax profession have been recognized by many honors, including the V. Judson Klein Award for excellence in and commitment to the tax profession from the State Bar of California Taxation Section (2002), the National Pro Bono Award from the ABA Tax Section (2004), the Judith McKelvey Distinguished Alumna Award from Golden Gate University School of Law, the Jules Ritholz Memorial Merit Award from the ABA Tax Section Civil & Criminal Tax Penalties Committee (2008), the Joanne Garvey Lifetime Achievement Award from the State Bar of California Taxation Section (2012), the Person of the Year Award from the National Society of Accountants, and the Bruce Hochman Lifetime Achievement Award from the UCLA Tax Controversy Institute (2015). She was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws in 2015 by Golden Gate University for excellence in and commitment to the legal profession, presented the 2017 Erwin N. Griswold Distinguished Lecture at the American College of Tax Counsel, and currently sits on the Board of Directors of Tax Analysts.
Everyone who has ever worked with Karen can attest that she is a force in the tax profession. She has an unparalleled work ethic: if she takes on a project, it will be done thoroughly, thoughtfully, and on time. She understands the real-world issues practitioners face and balances a sympathetic approach to those who fall short with a fierce dedication to protection of clients and taxpayers. She is intellectually honest and scholarly precise. In short, she is the person with whom you want to share a foxhole. This Distinguished Service Award is well-earned and richly deserved.
Following the completion of her term at OPR, Karen has returned to the West Coast, establishing a primary residence on the coast of Oregon, and continuing to enjoy her second home in Vancouver, British Columbia. Both locations enable her to expand her encyclopedic knowledge of wine.