Boris Bittker LAW ’41, a professor at Yale Law School for six decades who was the nation’s preeminent authority on tax law, died Sept. 8. He was 88.
Bittker, who also specialized in civil rights law and constitutional law, served as a Sterling Professor, Yale’s highest academic rank. He influenced students and professors alike through his devotion to the school and his unflinching desire to see it succeed. So revered was Bittker in the halls of the Law School that Dean Harold Hongju Koh called him “the soul of this special institution.”
“He defined the excellence and the decency of this place,” Koh said in his eulogy at Bittker’s funeral, according to his prepared text. “For nearly 60 years he was the greatest dean Yale Law School never had.”
In fact, Bittker turned down several offers to serve as dean, professors said.
“More than anyone else, he always had the interests of the school at his heart,” said Anthony Kronman LAW ’75, another Sterling law professor and a former dean. “His judgments about the Law School were more accurate than anyone else’s.”
Kronman, who first met Bittker as a student and later became his colleague on the faculty, said that Bittker’s care and activism in the community were just as impressive as his professional achievements.
“The Law School had no larger citizen during the half-century he was here than Boris Bittker,” Kronman said. “He showed an inspiring generosity to his friends and to the school as an institution.”
Bittker’s contributions to the field of tax law are undisputed.
“He is most notably a very distinguished tax scholar,” Kronman said. “He is appreciated by those around the world for his contributions to the field.”
Bittker published over 100 articles and at least 15 books over his long career.
“Every tax firm has Bittker’s treatises on their shelves,” law professor Michael Graetz said.
In the mid-1990’s, Bittker also spearheaded the launch of “Legal Affairs,” a journal that aims to make the study of law accessible to those outside the legal community.
“It took a visionary of Boris’ quality and breadth to conceive of it,” the journal’s editor and president, Lincoln Caplan, wrote in an e-mail. “Though he was one of the preeminent tax scholars in the world, with exceptional technical mastery of a demanding field, he was fundamentally a humanist. He had the vision to realize the value a magazine could provide as a bridge between … the domain of law and the much larger culture and society that law shapes.”
Koh, who was friends with Bittker’s son in middle school, said he will always remember Bittker’s dry sense of humor.
“He had a wry and self-deprecating sense of humor,” Koh said. “He was just extremely funny in an understated way.”
There was one story Bittker liked to retell, Koh recalled. It was about the day Bittker’s daughter was born, which coincidentally was the same day he found out from Myres McDougal he had received tenure at Yale. The next morning when Bittker came to class, his students cheered for the new father. But Bittker, assuming the applause was because of his tenure appointment, said modestly, “It’s thanks to McDougal,” leaving the students laughing and confused.
Graetz said Bittker stood out in the crowd of tax law wonks.
“I first met him at a tax conference in 1977,” Graetz said. “And in a large group of tax academics, I realized that only two of us had a sense of humor — me and him.”
While Bittker’s academic focus was on the laws and rules pertaining to taxation, he showed foresight in designating hot topics in the field of law.
In 1973, Bittker published the first analysis of slave reparations, a topic which has just recently come to the forefront, Koh said. Also in the 1970s, he wrote a paper about the legality of military commissions, another topic which has been in the news as of late due to the controversy surrounding the potential use of military tribunals to try enemy combatants.
Bittker was also an avid photographer, documenting his world travels with pictures.
“He took all kinds of pictures of people, always managing to find the one person crying or smiling in a crowd,” Koh said. “He had a tremendous eye for detail.”
Bittker was born in Rochester, N.Y., in 1916 and graduated from Cornell University in 1938 before attending Yale Law School. In 1946, he returned to New Haven as an assistant professor at the Law School. He was promoted to associate professor in 1948 and then full professor in 1951. He became a Sterling Professor in 1970. Though he retired from teaching in 1983, he continued to come into his office on a daily basis to pursue his writing and research.
Bittker is predeceased by his wife, Anne, and survived by his two children, Daniel and Susan.