Tax Law Gets Rare Spotlight in Ruth Bader Ginsburg Biopic

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By Carolina Vargas

A recently released biopic of Ruth Bader Ginsburg focuses on an unexpected topic: Tax Court.

The movie, “On The Basis of Sex,” which is expanding widely Jan. 11 after a December limited release, centers on the U.S. Supreme Court justice early in her career. Along with her husband, Martin D. Ginsburg, the pair teams up to take on a case involving what is ultimately deemed a discriminatory tax deduction.

The fact that the U.S. Tax Court, let alone tax at all, comes up in the movie is unique.

“Taxes are usually depicted as a dreadful obligation of living in a civilized society,” Aman Badyal, a partner at CKR Law in La Jolla, Calif., told Bloomberg Tax. “So, it was refreshing and inspirational to see a tax practitioner serve as a protagonist in a major motion picture.”

Tax deductions are still a common issue the court sees today, Badyal said.

Tax deductions made up 33 percent of the 240 memorandum and division opinions issued by the Tax Court in 2018, according to data collected by Bloomberg Tax.

“The movie (and the case it covers) does of course reinforce the point that we generally make that there is a significant amount of general public policy considerations in the tax area,” Jeffrey H. Kahn, a tax law professor at Florida State University College of Law in Tallahassee, said in an email.

The Case

The case involved Charles E. Moritz, who appealed a Tax Court decision prohibiting a 1968 deduction for caretaker expenses under tax code Section 214, because it was only available to women, divorcees, and widowers. Since Moritz had never married, the Tax Court said he didn’t qualify for the deduction. The code section has since been repealed and similar deductions are now under Section 213.

Moritz appealed the case in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in November 1972. The case was the launching point for Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s focus on gender issues.

She ultimately argued that the deduction should be available to all sexes. The court of appeals reversed the Tax Court’s opinion ruling that discrimination on sex alone doesn’t further the provision’s goal of helping women who are traditionally paid less than men.

Deduction Cases Still Relevant

A discrimination-focused case is uncommon in Tax Court today, said Badyal, who is a former Georgetown University law student of Martin Ginsburg.

“You’re certainly not going to see outright discrimination based on sex, race, or anything like that in the Tax Court nowadays,” he said.

One could, however, make the argument that 2017 tax reform changes such as Section 199A discriminate against a specific group by disallowing their deductions, he said. Section 199A is the tax law’s 20 percent write-off for pass-through businesses. Certain professions are excluded from the deduction.

The film’s focus could draw more attention to tax issues, Kahn said.

“It is always nice to have tax issues portrayed in the popular media in the hope that it will generate general interest in the subject,” he said.

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