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Mortimer Caplin Leaves Legacy at IRS, Top D.C. Law Firm (1)

July 16, 2019, 9:11 PMUpdated: July 16, 2019, 9:41 PM

Mortimer Caplin, who helped shape the IRS and a major Washington, D.C. law firm, died July 15 at the age of 103.

Caplin was IRS commissioner under former President John F. Kennedy and later co-founded Caplin & Drysdale. As IRS chief, he worked to make the agency kinder and friendlier, according to an obituary from his alma mater, the University of Virginia.

Scott Michel, a member at Caplin & Drysdale who has been at the firm for nearly four decades, said that Caplin played a key role in the firm’s culture.

“Those of us who are old-timers around here frequently comment that the tone and culture and the level of excellence that we aspire to, you can trace right back to the tone and culture and level of excellence that Mort Caplin conveyed,” Michel said.

IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig said in a statement that Caplin had a powerful personal story and career of public service, highlighting his time at the IRS and as a beachmaster at Omaha Beach during the Normandy Invasion in World War II.

“Indeed, throughout Mort’s incredible life, his service and dedication personally embodied what it takes to preserve America and its way of life. He will be missed,” Rettig said.

Time at IRS

Caplin joined Kennedy’s taxation task force shortly after the 1960 election, which led to Kennedy picking him for IRS commissioner. Caplin led the agency from 1961 to 1964.

Caplin liked to tell the story of how he persuaded Kennedy to be the first president to speak at the IRS, Michel said. There is a plaque at the IRS to commemorate the event.

A revenue procedure issued before Caplin left the agency said that the IRS should carry out tax policy fairly, quickly, and carefully.

“Administration should be both reasonable and vigorous,” the document said. “It should be conducted with as little delay as possible and with great courtesy and considerateness. It should never try to overreach, and should be reasonable within the bounds of law and sound administration. It should, however, be vigorous in requiring compliance with law and it should be relentless in its attack on unreal tax devices and fraud.”

Rettig said in a statement that the revenue procedure’s message shows Caplin’s lasting impact on the IRS and the tax community.

Caplin was spotlighted on the cover of Time magazine in February 1963. The issue was focused on “Taxes: All those deductions, loopholes, credits, etc.”

Caplin & Drysdale

Caplin paired up with Douglas D. Drysdale to found Caplin & Drysdale in 1964. The two met when Drysdale was a student in Caplin’s tax class at the University of Virginia School of Law.

“Our style of practice was aimed at minimizing our clients’ tax liabilities without compromising the ethical principles that are essential to the integrity of the tax system,” Caplin and Drysdale said in a statement posted on the firm’s website. “We soon earned a reputation among clients for mastering the complex and ever changing tax laws and for finding well-conceived, innovative solutions to tax problems.”

Drysdale died last year at the age of 94.

Michel recalled how, when he was a young lawyer working with Caplin, the former commissioner was quick to think of a dozen questions he hadn’t.

“It was his ability to pierce through the fluff and get to the point,” Michel said.

(Updates with IRS comment starting in fifth paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Kelly Zegers in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jeff Harrington at; Colleen Murphy at