The Honorable John O. Colvin: A view from the tax court bench

Published: October 13th, 2008

Category: News

John O Colvin
John O. Colvin, the chief judge of the U.S. Tax Court, discussed the details of tax court with classroom of graduate tax students. (UF Law/Chen Wang)

John O. Colvin, the chief judge of the U.S. Tax Court, gave an overview of the tax court Friday to a group mostly composed of graduate tax students.

Colvin divided his speech into seven sections relevant to the tax court: a general overview, the Court’s calendar, pretrial, trials, appeals, opinions, and collegiality. Colvin spent a lot of time explaining how the tax court works differently than other courts.

For example, an individual does not have to be an attorney to practice law before the tax court unlike other courts.

“The statute establishes that the tax court… has required us to administer a periodic exam, I think the statute says at least every other year, where non-attorneys can be admitted to practice before the Court.”

The tax court is based in Washington, D.C. and consists of 19 judges who are appointed to 15-year terms by the president and confirmed by the Senate, Colvin said. Although the court is based in Washington, judges travel to hear cases in about 75 different cities, Colvin said.

“We have 32,000 cases that we expect to come in this year; we have about 75 places of trial,” Colvin said. “How do we get 32,000 cases onto the trial sessions and into the hands of judges? We go to each of those cities at least once a year and to the larger cities, we go several times a year.”

President Ronald Reagan originally appointed Colvin to the tax court on Sept. 1, 1988 for a 15-year term ending on Aug. 31, 2003. He was reappointed on Aug. 12, 2004 for a term ending Aug. 11, 2019. He was elected chief judge by the other tax court judges on June 1, 2006 and June 1, 2008 for two-year terms.

In regular tax cases, there will be about 75 cases per week assigned to a judge. In small tax cases, which have lower monetary limits, there will be 100 cases per week. The calendars are released about five months in advance, Colvin said.

Those involved in small tax cases waive their right to an appeal, and the proceedings are less formal. After the trial, opinions are written and all are released on the tax court’s Web site,

In small tax cases, summary opinions and bench opinions may be written. These are not precedential, Colvin said.

In regular tax cases, there are bench opinions, memorandum opinions and division opinions, Colvin said. Most major cases become division opinions, which often decide new principles of law.

By statute, the Chief Judge reviews all of the opinions of the Court before they are released.

Colvin also has the statutory power as the chief judge to direct an opinion to be reviewed by the whole tax court.

And although Colvin has worked with tax law his whole life, he understands that it’s not the most exciting thing to most people.

“Sometimes people ask me to tell funny stories about tax court trials,” Colvin said. “You would maybe not be surprised to know how short that list of material is.”