More than crunching numbers

Block's interests lead to an unexpected career in tax law

Grandma knew best, but choices and circumstances also played a role in Cheryl D. Block’s career path.

“My grandmother always used to tell me I was going to be a lawyer because I was very argumentative and persuasive from a very early age,” says Block, J.D., professor of law. “But I insisted that wasn’t going to happen. I said no, no, no — I’m going to be a teacher. In the end, I wound up doing both.”

Cheryl D. Block, J.D., professor of law, meets with third-year student David Binder in her office in Anheuser-Busch Hall. Block is at the top of her field in tax law and has written numerous articles and op-ed pieces on taxation. Says Kent Syverud, J.D., dean and the Ethan A.H. Shepley University Professor: “She is by far the nation’s most sophisticated legal observer of the federal budget process, yet she can inspire a first-year law student or a professor from another discipline to become fascinated by tax law and policy.”

Block initially became interested in law in college at Hofstra University, where she was a political science major.

“I was interested in government, the rules that govern and how those rules are made,” she says. “I wanted to focus on women’s rights, civil rights and other constitutional issues.”

So she ended up with a career in tax law.

Tax law?

“I tell my students that life does funny things, and that sometimes things happen to you by accident,” Block says. “If you would have told me when I started law school that I was going to do tax law — I would have said you’re crazy. In fact, I don’t even think I would have taken a course in tax law if it hadn’t been a required part of the law school curriculum at the time at the State University of New York at Buffalo.”

Great teachers and personal connections changed her mind.

“I had a phenomenal teacher for my first tax law class and went on to a second teacher who was also excellent,” she says. “I also developed a great rapport with those teachers. In fact, I ended up singing in a jazz band with one of my tax professors.”

Even after her tax experience in law school, Block did not think she would continue in the field. She served as a clerk for the Honorable Kevin Thomas Duffy, a U.S. District Court judge in the Southern District of New York and then went to work for the law firm Lord, Day & Lord in New York City.

“It turns out that the tax people were the nicest people at the firm, and I enjoyed working with them,” she says. “One thing led to another, and I started doing tax work at the law firm.”

Still, as Block began her teaching career, tax law was not at the top of her list.

“I quickly discovered that there was a real need and demand for tax professors in a way that there wasn’t a demand for constitutional law or civil rights professors,” she says. “A woman teaching tax was particularly unusual at the time, so that, in a sense, is what made me more marketable in the teaching profession. Most important, I realized that being an academic in the tax area offered me the flexibility to combine my background in tax and my interest in legislation, public policy and constitutional issues.”

“When people ask me what I teach, I don’t just say tax law. I really think of myself as teaching Congress, legislative process and tax policy,” she says.

Now Block is at the top of her field. She’s the author of a leading book on corporate taxation and has written numerous articles and op-ed pieces on taxation, public policy relating to federal bailouts, legislative voting rules, social change theory and the interplay between tax and budget policy.

Kent D. Syverud, J.D., dean and the Ethan A.H. Shepley University Professor, admires Block’s “engaging scholarly humility” and says that feature of her work first attracted attention from many at Washington University.

The Block family: (from left) Cheryl; son, Aaron; husband, Chad; and daughter, Hannah.

“She is by far the nation’s most sophisticated legal observer of the federal budget process, yet she can inspire a first-year law student or a professor from another discipline to become fascinated by tax law and policy,” he says.

Block sees a lot of students who fall into tax law the same way she did.

“I can’t tell you how many students come to me and say, ‘I thought I was going to hate this class, but I really loved it,'” she says. “I don’t take a lot of personal credit for that; I had the same reaction. I think people are surprised to discover that tax is not just crunching numbers. You talk a lot about fundamental issues of fairness, equity and ethics surrounding the proper way to impose tax burdens on the public.”

In the news

Much of Block’s scholarship focuses on political issues that come to the forefront during election season, including the federal budget deficit, tax rates and lobbying reform.

“In terms of the budget deficit, we are basically spending on a credit card. What’s interesting is that it really doesn’t matter which party you are talking about. It’s just that each party wants to spend on different things,” she says. “We all want lower tax rates and more government programs — or at least the programs we prefer. But you just can’t have it all.”

Her current research centers on the federal budget process, focusing on the impact of earmarks, or congressional funding for special projects.

“Most everybody says that earmarking is a bad thing, but nobody is really prepared to get rid of it. It’s a very hard political habit to get out of once you’ve started it, especially if you’re up for reelection,” she says.

Beyond earmarks, Block has been looking at federal bailouts and disaster relief through the tax code.

“One of the things that struck me after the Hurricane Katrina tax relief legislation came out in 2005 was that the tax code should not necessarily be the first place to look for disaster relief,” she says.

“I found myself wondering whether the poor in New Orleans who really needed help benefited from the waived penalties on early withdrawals from retirement accounts, for example,” she says. “I think it’s really important to have guidelines and be clear about what we are doing rather than having knee-jerk reactions to different disaster or bailout situations. Why did we offer special tax legislation to New Orleans and New York City after 9/11 but not to those impacted by other disasters? Why bail out Bear Stearns but not other private business entities?”

Life at WUSTL

The University has become a comfortable home for Block’s research and teaching since she joined the faculty in 2006 after a long stint at George Washington University law school, where she received a Distinguished Faculty Service Award for teaching.

“The law school here feels very integrated with the rest of the University,” she says. “The school’s relationship with the political science department was a real attraction and should prove beneficial to my work.”

Block has found the faculty to be very welcoming and the students exceptional.

Cheryl D. Block

Title: Professor of law

Family: Husband, Chad; daughter, Hannah, 16; and son, Aaron, 9

Education: B.A., political science, Hofstra University; J.D., State University of New York at Buffalo

Interesting fact: Block’s time at WUSTL is not her first time living in Missouri. Block and her husband met while they both were faculty members at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

“I’ve graded some of the best papers I’ve seen while teaching,” she says.

Block’s other passion — children’s literature — is evident in and out of her office. The lower bookshelves in her office are filled with children’s picture books.

This collection has become a lending library for the nearly 20 law students who, like Block, volunteer with Ready Readers, a local nonprofit that promotes reading readiness for at-risk preschool children and provides free, personalized books to those children several times a year.

“It’s so wonderful to read to 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds who are so excited when we walk in the room,” she says. “I get a hug every time I go, and it’s just very rewarding.”

Block’s work with Ready Readers is an extension of her work in Washington D.C., where she was one of the founders of the Literacy Volunteers of America, D.C.-National Capital Area, which focuses on adult illiteracy. The chapter has become so successful that it now has a substantial budget, offices and staff.

Outside WUSTL, Block, her husband, Chad, and their children, Hannah and Aaron, are enjoying St. Louis.

“We love the Muny, the zoo and the botanical gardens. We’ve also gone on some great hikes in the area,” she says. “St. Louis has been a great place for our kids.”