May 22, 2014 at 1:00 am

Robert B. Pierce, Oro Valley, Ariz.

Former Detroit IRS chief helped rewrite tax code to benefit families

Mr. Pierce )

As a tax attorney, Robert B. Pierce became Detroit chief of the Internal Revenue Service and helped write legislation into the tax code to help foster parents.

In 1961, at the age of 36, Mr. Pierce became the youngest person in the country to be appointed assistant regional counsel for the IRS, putting him in charge of all federal tax attorneys involved in state litigation.

Mr. Pierce’s son Mark Pierce said his father was fair-minded and judicious with his authority.

“When he was with the IRS, he had a lot of power and he knew how to be restrained in the exercise of that power,” he said. “It’s something that we are missing today. That’s the kind of person you want in government.”

Mr. Pierce died May 16, 2014, in Oro Valley, Ariz., of congestive heart failure. He was 89.

Mr. Pierce began his government career in 1950 after he was hired out of law school as a trial attorney for the Food and Drug Administration. He was later transferred to the IRS, where he worked his way up the ranks to become the senior trial attorney for the IRS’s Michigan Tax District.

Three years after heading up the Detroit branch of the IRS, Mr. Pierce left the position to open up a law practice with attorney Dwight Hamborsky, who was then regional director of the Federal Housing Administration in Detroit. The two went on to become partners in the Detroit firm Hamborsky & Pierce.

Mark Pierce eventually joined the practice, working with his father and his other partners.

“I wanted to be a lawyer because my father was a lawyer,” he said. “Then when I become one, I realized it was a calling.”

As a lawyer in Michigan, Mr. Pierce made major contributions to legislation, particularly in writing the law that allows foster parents to claim their foster children as dependents on their federal tax returns. He was also key to the establishment of the Michigan Tax Tribunal, the state’s administrative tax court that allows individuals and governmental entities to resolve tax disputes.

In 1990, Mr. Pierce argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Even though he lost, Justices John Paul Stevens, Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan praised Mr. Pierce’s arguments in their dissenting opinion.

“They say that we stand on the shoulders of those who come before us,” said Mark Pierce. “I would say I stand on the shoulders of a giant.”

Mr. Pierce was born on Feb. 14, 1925, in Clarksburg, W.Va., and was primarily raised by his grandparents on their farm in Burnsville, W.Va., surrounded by mountains.

Before becoming a lawyer, Mr. Pierce was a chemical engineering student at Indiana Technical College in Fort Wayne, Ind. World War II intervened and in 1944, he enlisted and became a Navy Seabee serving with the 56th Naval Construction Battalion on the island of Guam in the Pacific.

Returning home after the war, Mr. Pierce attended college on the GI Bill, graduating from Marietta College (Ohio) in 1947 and receiving his law degree from the West Virginia University College of Law in 1950.

He was an avid outdoorsman who enjoyed hunting, fishing, boating and skiing. Mr. Pierce loved music and played the piano by ear. He also adored his beloved Scottish terrier Alfie.

Mark Pierce said he remembers once when he was about 10, he saw his father rescue a drowning family in Livingston County. They were fishing in Pinckney when a fisherman and his two children stepped into deep water and their waders filled, pulling them under.

His father swam out three times, first to get the daughter, then the son, but when he went back for the fisherman, he had gone under and it was too late.

“Of all the people out there, only two or three could swim,” said Mark Pierce. “I’ve never forgotten that. He saved those two kids.”

Mr. Pierce asked that half of his ashes be taken to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia and the other half be scattered in Burnsville on top of the mountains of his childhood, his son said.

He also is survived by his wife, Janet; ex-wife Wilda Pierce; son, Morgan; daughters, Rebecca Harmsen and Hollis Procopio, and eight grandchildren.

Mr. Pierce’s family will hold a memorial in his honor this summer in Michigan, although dates have not been finalized.

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