Marvin Chirelstein: A Great Teacher-Scholar

by Michael Dorf

Professor Marvin Chirelstein died last week. He was a giant in tax law. With the possible exception of the late great Marty Ginsburg of Georgetown (husband of Justice Ginsburg), Marvin had no rivals in his generation of tax law professors--and given changes in the legal academy, I very much doubt that one will emerge in a later generation.

Marvin's career and personality have been fondly and fittingly eulogized already, including on the official Columbia Law School website, by Dan Shaviro, and by Paul Caron. Here I'll add a few anecdotes and tie them into a thought about Marvin's legacy.

As others correctly note, Marvin had a marvelous dry wit. He was often generous. Larry Zelenak notes (in Paul's entry) the style and grace of Marvin's intellect, citing a 2013 contribution to The Green Bag in which Marvin fondly recalled two great antagonists whom Marvin knew and liked: Robert Bork and Ronald Dworkin. Larry calls attention to the paper in order to illustrate the breadth of Marvin's interests, and I agree that they were broad. Marvin would occasionally provide me with insightful comments about my own writing (typically addressed to "my dear Dorfie", a term of endearment used by no one else, and which, coming from anyone else, would have struck me as somewhat insulting), even though it had no connection to any of his own fields.

Re-reading Marvin's tribute to Bork and Dworkin, I was struck by the following elegiac passage:
Bork and Dworkin held sharply different theories of constitutional interpretation leading to very different results as cases arose. Both are interesting and to some extent persuasive, though, I suspect, less and less a matter of current influence as their major works recede in time. Neither, as far as I can tell, has ever been cited by the Supreme Court for his theory of constitutional interpretation or his appraisal of decided cases. In that sense, like other academic workers in this field, their particular views are transitory and harmless. But perhaps that gives them less credit than they are entitled to. Both have been widely read and have influenced scholarly and to some extent public opinion and each has a devoted political following.
One sees in this passage a wistfulness about the scholarly enterprise. Marvin grants that Bork and Dworkin may have had some lasting influence, but he thinks that the work of legal scholarship is essentially an amusement.

Marvin lived by that assessment. He was never what could fairly be called a highly productive scholar. He wrote very few law review articles and a small number of extremely influential books that were considered absolutely essential reading for students, practitioners, and other scholars. The dismissive term for his work these days would be "doctrinal," or he would be seen as an old-style treatise writer--but Marvin's synthetic work was of such high quality that these characterizations would be grossly unfair. Extremely sophisticated in his understanding of human behavior and institutions, Marvin was skeptical of grand theory. His work aimed to elucidate more than to persuade. It was for him an extension of his teaching.

And Marvin was by all accounts a marvelous teacher. I didn't have the good fortune to be his student, but I knew his reputation as a teacher, and I saw his commitment. Accordingly, I'll close with an anecdote.

About 15 years ago or so, there was some program that had been intiated by either the dean's office or the central university at Columbia, aiming to foster "innovative teaching." I believe that the innovations were meant to take advantage of (what was then) cutting edge technology. Faculty who volunteered to integrate "innovative teaching" into their courses would receive some temporary course relief while they developed their new materials. At the faculty meeting at which this program was described, a colleague who was known as a less-than-stellar teacher was asking a number of questions about how the course relief would work, what would qualify, etc. Marvin sat in his seat with a bemused look on his face and finally interrupted with roughly the following: "What about not boring the students out of their minds? Does that count as innovative teaching?"

It ought to have. Rest in peace, Marvin.