Tribute: Tax lawyer Martin David Ginsburg

A man of valor.

July 1, 2010 04:10
3 minute read.
Marty Ginsburg

Marty Ginsburg 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Like his wife – US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – renowned tax lawyer Marty Ginsburg, who died in Washington on Sunday at age 78, graduated in the 1950s into a legal community that excluded Jews and Catholics, among others.

The rejected established their own firms, and many became behemoths now more significant than the exclusivist originals.

“No one would give my wife a job,” Marty Ginsburg remembered, with fresh outrage, on our first meeting. I had just joined the US Treasury Department, and had been advised to contact Ginsburg, beloved counselor of all tax lawyers.

We talked about an astonishing range of subjects. About Ruth, Marty shared slews of anecdotes.

When she did not find a position in a New York law firm on account of her gender and motherhood, she entered the world of research and co-authored a text on civil procedure. Although her colleague agreed that she should be listed first as the primary author, tradition required strict adherence to alphabetical order and Ruth Ginsburg would have been second. So they resurrected Bader and she became primary.

Marty also had a difficult time finding a job after law school. He had been ill with cancer during the interviewing period and so had only had an offer from a very small, no-name firm. “Which was that?” I asked, innocently.  “Weil Gotshal,” he answered.

I laughed – today Weil, Gotshal & Manges has “1,200 lawyers across 20 offices worldwide,” according to its Web site.

Tax law was still a developing area when Marty joined it in 1958. It was open territory for a bright lawyer.  He became managing partner at his firm, but then defected to academia.

Marty spoke little of his law firm experience, and seemed prouder of his academic accolades. Marty, Ruth and their daughter Jane are all “schoolteachers” in his parlance. This in a profession where the only yardsticks are how much money you make and how much power you can wield.

Marty’s love of the tax law was like King David’s love of God. He talked of it ecstatically, always ready to throw out a problem and see how his interlocutor would grapple with it. If I couldn’t manage, he would walk through it patiently and with delight, explaining the many steps to its solution.

Both Marty and Ruth chose jobs and projects that allowed them to forge new fields. At Marty’s urging, Ruth began working on a sex discrimination case that established her career in Constitutional Law. Marty practiced tax law as it emerged into a distinct jurisprudence. He partnered with congressional staff, the Internal Revenue Service and the Treasury to rationalize the US corporate tax, at the same time solving insoluble problems for clients, sometimes for free so as not to look “unseemly.”

The mutual support Marty and Ruth developed in their marriage is an adult fairy tale. When Marty had cancer in law school, Ruth attended both her classes and his; she “descended” from Harvard Law School to Columbia University to be close to him when he started working in New York. Later, when Ruth was appointed to the Court of Appeals, Marty “descended” from a professorship at Columbia to teaching at Georgetown so they could be together in Washington.

When the Supreme Court position became a possibility for Ruth, he was more passionate and effective than any paid lobbyist in working the political system to ensure her overwhelming support in the Senate.

Greater even than Marty’s wit and brilliance was his humility. Marty never made me feel lesser than he, generally the method of establishing importance in Washington, a city of gargantuan egos. At the end of our first lunch, Marty drove me back to work in his ancient car.

All the way, he bantered with me on the law. I sensed nothing of his immense wealth, status and prestige. Only his smile, his generosity and his intense need to share the things that he thought were important, namely: finding solutions to impossible problems. Such as, finding suitable employment for Ruth when “no one would give my wife a job.”

Viva Hammer is a tax lawyer in Washington, and formerly associate tax legislative counsel in the Office of Tax Policy at the US Treasury Department.

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