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Mortimer M. Caplin (1916 - 2019)

Founding Member, Washington, D.C.


Mortimer M. Caplin was a Founding Member of Caplin & Drysdale, Chartered. Mr. Caplin was born in New York City on July 11, 1916, coincidentally the year when the U.S. federal income tax was established. He received his B.S. from the University of Virginia in 1937 and remained at UVA to earn his LL.B. from the School of Law in 1940. He was first in his class and Editor-in-Chief of the Virginia Law Review.

After a clerkship with U.S. Circuit Judge Armistead M. Dobie, he practiced law in New York City, but soon thereafter enlisted in the United States Navy. During World War II, Mr. Caplin served in various capacities, culminating with his role in the Normandy invasion, landing on Omaha Beach following the first wave of forces to help sweep the landing area and ready it for more men and matériel, while still under fire and air attack. He was later awarded the French Legion of Honor by President Nicolas Sarkozy in a ceremony in France in 2012.

In 1950, Mr. Caplin returned to the University of Virginia as a professor of law, specializing in tax law, where his students included Robert F. Kennedy and Edward “Ted” Kennedy, both of whom, he would say later, he had the good fortune to give passing grades. Following President John F. Kennedy’s election, upon the recommendation of the President-Elect’s brothers, Mr. Caplin served on the President’s Task Force on Taxation. In January 1961, President Kennedy appointed him as IRS Commissioner, a position that landed him on the cover of Time magazine wearing his signature bow tie in 1963.

During his time as IRS Commissioner, Congress passed a tax reform package and the agency installed its first computer systems through a program called the New Direction. “It changed the relationship between practitioners and the IRS and encouraged accurate self-assessment,” Caplin recalled in a 2016 interview with Tax Analysts. Mr. Caplin was the first, and still only, IRS Commissioner to persuade the President of the United States to visit the IRS building. A plaque in an IRS hallway commemorates the visit of President Kennedy on May 1, 1961. Mr. Caplin remained close to the Kennedy family, and at a ninetieth birthday celebration in the Senate Caucus Room in 2006, Senator Edward Kennedy delivered one of the tributes.

Mr. Caplin left the IRS in 1964 and formed his own law firm, Caplin & Drysdale, in Washington, D.C., with a colleague and friend from Charlottesville, Douglas Drysdale (who died in 2018 at the age of 94). He assembled a team of lawyers from top staff at the IRS, the Treasury, and the Justice Department. The Firm has since expanded its practice areas beyond tax into litigation and political law and opened its New York office in 1986.

Mr. Caplin’s lifelong dedication to service was extensive. He served as a trustee of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors, the Chair of the UVA Law School Foundation, and as a benefactor to the Miller Center on Public Affairs. He served for over 10 years as chair of the UVA Council for the Arts and, afterward, was made Honorary Chair. The Ruth Caplin Theatre, named for his wife who was a patron of the arts, is a major arts venue on the Main Grounds of the University. On the Law School Grounds, generations of law students have now studied in the library’s Mortimer Caplin Reading Room, attended lectures in the Caplin Auditorium, benefitted from the Mortimer Caplin Public Service Fellowship, and socialized in the gorgeous Caplin Pavilion. The University awarded him its highest honor, the Thomas Jefferson Medal in Law, in 2001.

Mr. Caplin passed away on July 15, 2019, just four days after his 103rd birthday.