Taxation vocation: NYU tax scholar is a new face on MSU Law faculty

Dr. Charles Delmotte has joined the faculty of Michigan State University College of Law and will teach income tax, trusts and estates, and a tax policy seminar.

Photo courtesy of Charles Delmotte

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

To Dr. Charles Delmotte, a new assistant professor at Michigan State University, teaching is the best possible job, on many different levels. 

“The vocation to explain tax rules and interact with students is one of the reasons I pursued an academic career,” he says. 

This fall, he will teach basic income tax, trusts and estates and the tax policy seminar at the College of Law  – courses that, he feels, “allow you to make a difference in students' lives – for instance by sparking a passion for income tax or by explaining specific tax rules in a way that generates research questions.” 

He is excited to get started in his new role. “I will realize my dream to be a tax professor, and I can't wait to lead a classroom and teach tax courses,” he says. “Our task is not only to transfer knowledge but to create an environment that can help students overcome the consequences of inequality and discrimination and that can lead to vertical social mobility. In this sense, teaching can be a way to make a difference in society.”

He hopes to make a difference in the larger sense, too. “MSU has a wonderful faculty, whom I had the chance to meet already a few times. I look forward to spending more time together at research events and informal activities.  MSU is part of the US News list of best tax law programs – and I hope to contribute to the rising star of our tax program.

“In general, I’m excited to research and publish extensively, in the hope I can contribute to the position of our law school. My prognosis is that we will make a jump in the years to come!” 

Hailing from Belgium, Delmotte earned his bachelor's and master’s degrees in philosophy, a JD, and a PhD from Ghent University. 

“Philosophers are interested in phenomena that are currently not fully understood by the social or natural sciences. What is beautiful—aesthetics—what is just or what is ethical—moral philosophy—aren’t questions we’ve fully solved,” he says. 

His interest in political thought soon followed. 

“When I was 16 years old my favorite philosophical question revolved around the legitimate exercise of political authority, political philosophy—when and why does society have a right to force another person to do—or not to do—X? This general question has many applications—when and why does society have a right to prevent a person from migrating into a country? When and why does society have a right to force a person to keep a fetus and give birth? When and why should we pay taxes?” 

Delmotte says he quickly realized theories on the justification of coercive action are best met with an understanding of the legal system in place. 

“If you want to critically engage with legal rules and the exercise of political authority – one must, I think, understand how the legal rules actually work. And so, I went to law school.” 

His critical approach to law wasn’t shared by many of his fellow students nor professors back in Europe; and one professor told him, ‘Law is above everything a technical matter – and as lawyers, we should focus on how rules work, not on how they should work.’ 

“I followed this credo and, as a JD student, made sure I properly understood law ‘as it is,’” he says.

Delmotte was drawn to the niches of tax law, commercial law, and bankruptcy.

“Tax law is both highly complex – meaning it takes a lawyers’ mindset to properly understand the intricate interplay of all rules. At the same time, tax law is society's current answer to ‘who should pay how much and on what grounds’ – also a political and even philosophical question,” he notes. 

“I'm trained to understand how tax law works in practice, but I also have a methodology to ask innovative research questions, for instance on whether the mark-to-market approach interferes with individual autonomy.”

After earning his JD, Delmotte practiced business, commercial, and insolvency law as a member of the restructuring team at DLA Piper's Brussels office. For two years, he conducted litigation and provided legal counseling for multinational clients and large firms and specialized in business recovery and insolvency both on a national and international level. He often advised multinational banks on dealing with (potentially) insolvent companies, and worked on the bankruptcy of the Sabena national airline, one of the biggest in Belgian history. He also practiced commercial law, such as litigations on issues of delivery and payment in commerce.

“Restructuring and bankruptcy border many other domains of law such as tax law, labor law, and commercial law – and this generates a good all-around legal training,” he says. 

In 2014, Delmotte started a PhD that uses methods from philosophy, and later also economics, to investigate fundamental questions in tax design: what to tax (tax base), how to measure it (realization based or mark-to-market) and what rate and rate structure to apply (progressive or flat, exemptions or not). 

During his PhD, he was invited to contribute to Oxford University Press’ Philosophical Foundations of Tax Law – the first major book on this issue. 

In the middle of his PhD, he became an Adam Smith fellow at George Mason University in Virginia; and for two years he studied political economy. 

“This field focuses on how the design of legal rules is subject to pressures from self-interested voters, politicians, and lobby groups; and also, how legal rules result in unintended consequences, effects that the policymaker did not foresee nor intended,” he explains. 

“Whereas earlier I focused on philosophical questions on tax, I became more interested in feasibility questions—for example the informational and incentive problems that tax policy makers will encounter when trying to make tax law.” 

The combination of normative questions and feasibility insights triggered the interest of NYU’s Law School, and he was offered a post-doctoral fellowship at the Classical Liberal Institute.

“Suddenly all the pieces of the research puzzle fit together,” he says. 

Conversations and workshops with leading faculty led to new work on the economics of different tax and innovation policies. From 2018 to 2021, Delmotte published ten articles, notably in the Florida State University Law Review, the European Journal of Law and Economics, Social Philosophy and Policy, the Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence and Constitutional Political Economy. His research also benefited from working with co-authors from other disciplines, including economists and political scientists.

Delmotte, who also has lived in New York City, London (King’s College), Munich (Max Planck) and in Tucson when he was a visiting researcher at the University of Arizona, now makes his home in East Lansing. 

“I’m a new Michigander! I already like the state as there are interesting cities such as Detroit and Grand Rapids and I will – after New York City – have more opportunities for outdoor activities,” he says.

His wife Siska is joining him in Michigan. “She’s a content writer and journalist who specializes in architecture, design and art. I often test my new academic ideas with her – she’s a real muse,” he says.

Delmotte is also looking forward to his leisure activities.

“Coming from the land of Eddy Merckx and Wout van Aert – my passion is cycling. I look forward to cycling through and taking in Michigan's beautiful landscapes,” he says. “When I’m doing research, I tend to take my breaks in the gym and do some cardio.  I was happy to find out there is a gym next to MSU’s law school! 

“I also like hiking and running, and soccer and I hope to find some new friends to proudly support our football or basketball team—Go Spartans!”   

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