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EDITORIAL: Democrats taxing nomination

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It's bad enough to have a tax cheat as Treasury secretary, but now the Obama administration wants the Justice Department's Tax Division to be run by somebody who is inexperienced in tax law. This suggests that the administration disdains tax law altogether.

It's important to recall that the administration forwarded for high positions several nominees who hadn't paid all their taxes. The worst was Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, who even signed a document acknowledging receipt of extra payments specifically to use to cover his tax bill but still didn't pay the $34,000 he owed. Then he had the gall to blame TurboTax computer software for his tax dodging.

Now comes the nomination of Mary L. Smith to head the Tax Division. Her nomination was on yesterday's Senate Judiciary Committee agenda, but Republicans exercised their prerogative to "lay over" the matter for one more week. No wonder. Her official Senate questionnaire asked Ms. Smith to list her 10 most significant cases, and not a single one of them involved tax law. Nor did she mention any tax issues associated with her prior government service during the Clinton administration. Her relevant experience purportedly came while working for Tyco International Ltd., but she said just 5 percent of her work there involved tax law.

Her questionnaire indicates that Ms. Smith has no advanced degrees in tax law, has not practiced in the United States Tax Court, has never written or spoken on tax law, has won no awards in tax law, has never "worked on cases with or before the Internal Revenue Service" and has never even taken tax-related continuing legal education. She has never tried a tax case as lead attorney all the way to judgment and has never appeared before a jury on any tax-law issues.

According to a Nov. 3 article on the Main Justice Web site, "M. Carr Ferguson who was President Jimmy Carter's Tax Division chief, said he was 'troubled' by Smith's nomination. He said Tax Division chiefs appointed by Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had at least some tax law experience. 'This isn't a position where you come to learn a new field of law,' Ferguson said. 'It is a position where you are dealing with a bunch of lawyers who need direction.' "

Overall, Ms. Smith's legal resume in private practice and public service is substantive. Were Ms. Smith nominated in an area where her experience was more relevant, such as securities law, her confirmation almost certainly would sail through.

This looks like a case of the right person for the wrong job. Senators are right to take extra time to closely consider and debate Ms. Smith's qualifications. Their considerations need not and should not be partisan in nature. The Tax Division is a highly specialized branch of the Justice Department. It probably shouldn't be headed by a tax-law novice.

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