Moritz College of Law The Ohio State University
This Month @ Moritz

Professor Donald Tobin: Teaching Policy and Politics - Through Taxes?

Donald Tobin
Donald Tobin

Associate Professor Donald Tobin looks at the federal tax code from a public policy angle: how it is used, or should be used, to achieve policy goals. He has made it his mission to educate others on how taxes and other economic policies can be used for the betterment-or detriment-of society. "I use tax policy as a lens to view a whole series of issues," he explains.

Donald knows firsthand how economic policy drives social policy, a dynamic on which he focuses his work. Before joining the Moritz College of Law in 1997, he served as appellate staff attorney for the tax division of the U.S. Department of Justice, and clerked for Judge Francis Murnaghan, Jr., of the U.S. Court of Appeals Fourth Circuit. Prior to that, he worked on Capitol Hill as a staff member with the Senate Budget Committee, the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, and for Senator Paul Sarbanes, specializing in issues concerning taxation, budget, monetary policy, and trade.

You could say teaching is in his blood. Both of Donald's parents were university professors, and he takes in stride the challenges of teaching tax policy. He knows that, coming into his class, many students aren't exactly fired up about taking a Federal Income Taxation course, for they assume that the course content consists of numbers and statutes. While an understanding of those areas is an essential part of the class, Donald gets students to see the bigger picture-how government's "power of the purse" shapes the nation in fundamental ways. It's an angle that resonates with his students. "Students soon realize there is tremendous power in how government collects revenue and redistributes it. It defines what kind of democratic government we want to have," Donald says.

Donald's son Alex and daughter Anne
Donald's son Alex and daughter Anne

"Professor Tobin showed our class how the tax code reflects and shapes social policies, legislative choices, and attorney-client interactions. His experience working as a staff member in Congress, and, later, as an attorney with the Department of Justice, gave him a valuable perspective that he was able to share with our class," says 3L Jon Brollier. "For example, to learn the nuance of a particular code section dealing with so-called 'Hobby-Loss' deductions, the class argued, in teams, both sides of a case that Professor Tobin had handled before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. This unique combination of practical and theoretical learning was typical of my experience in Professor Tobin's Tax class."

Studying tax policy provides insight into many facets of law, and in turn, it helps students sharpen their skills in many areas. "It's one of the few areas of law that encompasses all the different types of analyses needed in law school: statutory, administrative, regulatory, policy, and case law," Donald notes.

With tax policy woven into so many areas of law, Donald's expertise lends itself to collaborative work. The opportunity to work with Moritz faculty with a wide range of expertise was a deciding factor in his decision to join Ohio State, and he finds that such teamwork strengthens the scholarship of all involved. Working with the Legislation Clinic, Donald helps students learn first-hand about the interface between law and politics, and he brings his unique perspective to the Election Law @ Moritz project, particularly in the area of campaign finance reform. In one case, Donald and Moritz colleague Professor Edward "Ned" Foley authored an article on the statutory and constitutional questions concerning the influence of "soft money" in federal election campaigns, focusing on a perceived loophole in the campaign finance reform act passed in 2002.

Kids Alex and Anne get ready for Halloween
Kids Alex and Anne get ready for Halloween

Similarly, in a recent writing, Donald takes on what will likely become a hot-button issue in upcoming months: the involvement of charitable and religious organizations in political campaigns. The issue came to the forefront earlier this year when a group of clergy contacted the IRS, alleging that some Ohio churches and related organizations are unlawfully intervening in the gubernatorial race by endorsing a specific candidate, a clear violation of federal tax law. Again Donald's analysis spells out the social and political implications behind the policy as it relates to the issue, educating academics, legislators, and the public at large with reliable, objective, timely information.

Donald's 2004 University of Cincinnati Law Review article "Investing in Our Children: A Not So Radical Proposal" exemplifies his philosophy of using tax policy to improve society. He proposes giving all children $2000 per year from birth to age 15. As an investment, the child would have to gradually repay the amount as an adult. To support his plan, Donald cites economic literature on human capital investment, educational literature on the impact of money on childhood attainment, and political theory literature on civic responsibility. Not so radical? That's open for debate, but the proposal certainly opens a dialogue and encourages examination of current programs and policies.

During the next school year, Donald will be able to interact with students even more. He will assume the post of Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in August of 2006.

The father of two enjoys bowling on one of the 34 teams that make up the unofficial Moritz bowling league. Donald's team, Enlightening Strikes, made it to the finals last year, but was soon knocked out of the competition. Jokes Donald, "We're too good for our own good."