New York University School of Law, JD 2001
Yale University, BA 1995
Shari Motro is the very definition of a polymath—her diverse interests and skills led her to study philosophy as an undergraduate and to consider post-graduate study in architecture, history and Middle Eastern studies before settling on law school. And what may appear as jumps in interest belie an unswerving passion for analyzing complex systems that determine how resources are distributed.
Motro: "There is something very elegant about tax policy, how it answers questions of apportioning wealth in society."
This passion started during Motro’s mandatory service in the Israeli army where, as a translator during the Oslo II peace talks, she found herself grappling with the ethical dilemmas of Zionism. After her initial interest in resource distribution between two nations, at NYU Motro became immersed in the study of tax law. “There is something very elegant about tax policy, how it answers questions of apportioning wealth in society,” Motro notes. Motro was also drawn to tax law because she enjoyed deciphering the logic of the Internal Revenue Code. To help herself understand how tax works as a law student, Motro drew diagrams. Then, with the help of NYU tax professor Deborah Schenk, she developed “The Income Tax Map: A Bird’s-Eye View of Federal Income Taxation for Law Students,” now in its 7th Thomson West edition.
Following her graduation from NYU Law, after a brief stint at a law firm, Motro taught “Visual Approaches to Legal Thought”—a seminar she developed using insights from her tax map—at her alma mater, Yale. Next, as a fellow at a non-profit, Motro applied theories of graphic design to maps accompanying Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements. “Maps record facts but, whether by design or by accident, they also project worldviews and function as arguments,” she observes. “A skilled designer can make peace seem inevitable or impossible, reassuring or terrifying, logical or jumbled.” The course at Yale confirmed the rewards of academic life, and with the help of the NYU faculty and Academic Careers Program, Motro landed a tenure track position at the University of Richmond, where she is an associate professor of law.
She has written about discrimination against single people in general, and through the tax system in particular.
Her recent scholarship focuses on the economics of marriage and other intimate relationships. She has written about discrimination against single people in general, and through the tax system in particular. For example, taxation law assumes that spouses share their income, which ends up creating a tax break for married couples, while the reality is that marriage law doesn’t require spousal sharing. Meanwhile many unmarried couples do split income equally and don’t get tax breaks, nor do unpartnered individuals, who shoulder all living expenses alone. Because marriage is a poor proxy for economic unity, Motro proposes that only couples legally committed to sharing their income, regardless of marital status, should be permitted to file joint income tax returns.
There are also problems with property distribution at divorce, Motro asserts. In most jurisdictions, property acquired prior to marriage and property received by gift or inheritance during marriage belongs to each spouse separately. Regardless of how long spouses have been together, divorcing property owners have no obligation to share this separate wealth. Earnings accumulated in the course of the marriage, on the other hand, are divisible at divorce. “Thus, where the born-rich individual divorces the self-made professional, only the worker is forced to share,” Motro says. “If earnings are to belong to both spouses as a unit, a portion of what is currently classified as separate property should also be attributed to the marriage.”
Finally, Motro has begun to explore the legal and economic relationship between women and the men by whom they become pregnant. “Pregnancy radically changes lovers’ relationship to each other,” she says, “but the law treats them as near strangers. I want to change that.”