In Print: Volume 85: Number 6
By Leandra Lederman
85 Wash. U. L. Rev. 1195 (2008)
Courts are critically important institutions. They preside over private disputes brought before them, oversee much agency action, and even overturn legislation. In short, courts have tremendous power. That power, in turn, calls for acceptance of courts’ authority by litigants who submit, voluntarily or involuntarily, to their jurisdiction.
Courts that hear disputes between private citizens and the federal government may particularly need a reputation for procedural fairness because of the possibility that such an institution may be viewed as captured by the governmental party that routinely appears before it. Any indication that such a court is not turning square corners may undermine its legitimacy in the eyes of the public.
The United States Tax Court (Tax Court) is an important example of a court that only hears disputes between private parties and the federal government. Each year, it closes cases worth billions of dollars in the aggregate. Moreover, although taxpayers face a choice of forum, that choice is often more theoretical than real because the Tax Court is the only forum in which to litigate a federal tax case without first paying the amount in dispute. The overwhelming majority-approximately ninety-five percent-of litigated federal tax cases are filed in Tax Court. Accordingly, the public’s perception of the Tax Court may also affect its perception of the tax system as a whole, and thereby affect tax compliance.