R.I.P., Professor Ginsburg

I was very saddened to learn today of the death of Professor Martin Ginsburg, an extraordinary teacher and intellect.  For many years Professor Ginsburg taught Tax Law at the Georgetown University Law Center, and I was privileged to learn from him.  I took my first tax law course from him not because I had any interest at all in tax law, but because other students said his course was not to be missed — and they were right.  Having Professor Ginsburg teach you tax law was like having Michelangelo teach you painting.

Professor Ginsburg’s standard question to his students began “If you were king . . . .”  He emphasized that the federal tax code simply represented a series of policy judgments.  He taught us the existing laws on things like the “hobby loss” and “like kind exchange” provisions of the Code, of course, but also urged us to go beyond the bare language of the federal tax laws to consider the broader social engineering issues lurking underneath.  At some point in the past, Members of Congress had made the policy judgments that led to the Code in its current form — but were they wise judgments?  If we were king, would we have done it differently, or at all?

Professor Ginsburg’s keen sense of humor, enthusiasm, and obvious love for the subject matter made what could have been a dusty or rote learning exercise into something that was enormously stimulating and satisfying.  Although he was a giant intellect in the field, he was neither arrogant nor aloof, and he seemed genuinely interested in what his students had to say.  He was one of those rare teachers who could have taught anything and made it a memorable experience.  He will be sorely missed.