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Memorial created 04-29-2006 by
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Maureen Bridget Cavanaugh
January 7 1955 - April 4 2005

Professor Maureen Cavanaugh on TAX LAW


(reprinted from the Dickenson Lawyer, Winter 2005) [Published before she died.]


“If we consider how past societies have done things, we can choose what makes the most sense for our culture.”

For centuries, government systems have incorporated taxation into the structures of their societies. So, for Professor Maureen B. Cavanaugh, a tax law expert with a background in the classics, researching historical practices and applying them to modern day tax issues is a natural course of study.

"Pretending tax laws and policies are new isn't realistic," said Cavanaugh, who became a Penn State Dickinson School of Law faculty member this fall. "I look at current tax issues through a mirror of the past to learn what has been the historical experience with this issue . . . If we consider how past societies have done things, we can choose what makes the most sense for our culture."


But as intrinsic as it may seem to Cavanaugh, her work has garnered national recognition as an innovative approach to the study of tax law. Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Cay Johnston recently touted Cavanaugh's scholarship and its influence on tax law in his half-page article "A Taxation Policy to Make John Stuart Mill Weep," which appeared in the April 18 issue of the New York Times.

A native of Minnesota, Cavanaugh received her B.A. from Swarthmore College and an M.A. and Ph.D. in classics from Cornell University. "I wanted to start at the beginning, and I never got bored," said Cavanaugh of her initial, and ultimately ongoing, interest in the classics.

During graduate school, she spent a year in Greece at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens as the James Rignall Wheeler Fellow. She went on to spend several years as a professor of classics (Greek and Latin languages and literature, archaeology and ancient history) at Pomona College and Middlebury College before putting her teaching career on hold to run her family's rental real estate business in Minnesota.

It was during her return to Minnesota and the hiatus from her work with the classics that Cavanaugh decided to consider a new, "more practical," career path in law. After earning a J.D. magna cum laude from the University of Minnesota, she practiced tax law with Coopers & Lybrand, L.L.P. in Minneapolis. Although fascinated by the practice of tax law, Cavanaugh was drawn to return to teaching; a choice that has enabled her to mesh her passion for history with her interest in tax law.

Cavanaugh's research covers a range of federal income tax and employee benefits issues. She has authored more than fifteen articles and publications, including "Tax as Gatekeeper: Why Company Stock Is Not Worth The Money," Virginia Tax Review (2003); "On the Road to Incoherence: Congress, Economics and Taxes," UCLA Law Review (2002); and "Order in Multiplicity: Aristotle on Text, Context and the Rule of Law," North Carolina Law Review (March 2001).

Cavanaugh is currently addressing the debate over how the United States should fund its political system. "The only thing about which there is any agreement in an otherwise completely contested area— including who should pay or at what rate and what should be taxed—is that the tax system ought to be 'fair,'" Cavanaugh said. ". . . Unanchored from the realities of implementation, there is no easy way to assess what is 'fair,' or what effects any system proposed might have." Through an exploration of how classical societies, including Athens and Rome, and our other predecessors, such as England, taxed their subjects, Cavanaugh hopes to show that the pursuit of political equality does not necessarily imply equal tax burdens.


"We shouldn't make the assumption that in order to be politically equal, we have to have equal tax burdens," Cavanaugh explained. "Athens, for example, developed the first democracy and was very concerned with equality, yet the government taxed only the top two percent of its people. The government allowed for disproportionate burdens even though it valued democracy perhaps more than we [Americans] do.

"We are ignoring too valuable a resource if we continue to ignore what history can tell us about the correlation between political systems and the mechanisms of public finance associated with those types of government. This is not to say that we must choose any particular historical system. Rather, we might do well to consider what forms of taxation and who bears the burden of taxation are appropriate for a democracy, as opposed to a monarchy . . ." Cavanaugh added.

At Penn State Dickinson, Cavanaugh teaches courses in basic tax law, tax policy, corporate tax and employee benefits. She says her students are extremely responsive to her historical approach to tax law and are often inspired to ask questions and engage in thoughtful discussions. Prior to joining Penn State Dickinson, Cavanaugh was a professor at Washington and Lee School of Law where she was named Alumni Faculty Fellow in 2001-2002 and Law Council Fellow in Teaching Excellence in 2002-2003. She also served for four years as a faculty advisor to Washington and Lee students involved with Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA), an IRS program that provides volunteer assistance to low-income taxpayers. In the spring of 2003, Cavanaugh served as a visiting professor at Florida State University.

Cavanaugh currently sits on the Executive Committee for the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) Tax Section and Employee Benefits Section. In 2003, she was a consultant to Virginia Senator John Warner on a teacher tax credit act proposal and possible uses of the Tax Code to provide prescription drug benefits to Medicare recipients.


Professor Cavanaugh and her husband, Christopher Plum, have enjoyed breeding and raising show and service Newfoundlands since 1980. Lexi (short for lex sacra, Latin for sacred law) and Nomos (which is Greek for “law”), are shown here with Professor Cavanaugh and are among five Newfoundlands that keep the couple busy these days.


It would be very soon after this article that Maureen would be stricken with brain cancer and forced to leave teaching and research.


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