Expats Around the World: Mark Holmes

Hamburg native has seen a lot as U.S. Tax Court judge

Buffalo Business First staff report

U.S. Tax Court Judge Mark Holmes was recently appointed to a second 15-year term.

Hamburg native Mark Holmes, a U.S. Tax Court judge since 2003, is well known for his musings in the courtroom, as well as his opinions in rulings.

Holmes remains a Buffalo sports fan and is part of a group of Western New York natives in the Washington, D.C., area that gets together to reminisce about their common roots.

Since he became judge, the former attorney has presided over countless cases, some of which involved professional athletes, celebrities and even the estate of the late entertainer Michael Jackson.

Occasionally the least interesting part of tax court will be the case, he said.

“The human factors are always what make law interesting,” he said. “(I hear) stories from people of how they make their business go and how they live their lives. And then they come to tax court and realize how much money they owe to the government.”

Holmes had an accidental start in the field. He defended his parents in a case versus the Internal Revenue Service. Later, a firm he was working for brought him in on a tax case since he had some experience and from there it became his specialty.

What do you remember fondly about Western New York and what pushed you toward a career in law? I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer. I was the sort of kid that was always arguing with his parents. But what I most enjoyed growing up apart from my family was my high school, which was Calasanctius High School.

A lot of people in Western New York might have forgotten that because it closed, but it was a remarkable high school founded by refugees from the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. … Among the refugees were a number of priests who had been educators back in Hungary who had survived both the Nazis and the communists. (The school) was a window into a part of the world that those of us that were fortunate to have grown up in very peaceful surroundings under a free government in Western New York don’t know.

What carried over for you from your career as an attorney to the bench? Mostly it’s the ability to try a case, to get evidence admitted in some reasonable way and to explain things to the audience. When I was a litigator, I would have to explain things to a judge. Now as a judge, I need litigators to explain things to me.

So much of tax law and judging in general is to put facts into a story that makes sense. You have to tell a story. … Cases aren’t ready-made, usually. They’re subject to change during a trial as people are asked questions and they get cross examined. You end up having to find out where the truth is at the bottom of this and where it fits into the story.

Are there any issues in tax court that come up frequently? By far the biggest issues are people who don’t keep records of their expenses. That is the meat and potatoes of tax court practice: People that have their own businesses but are not good at their record keeping and the IRS comes after them.

There are lots of other kinds of cases, but that is at least half of it.