A federal appeals court delivered a long overdue rebuke Tuesday to both the Internal Revenue Service and the Justice Department attorneys who have defended it in lawsuits from aggrieved tea party groups. A unanimous three-judge panel ordered the IRS to quickly turn over the full list of groups it targeted so that a class-action lawsuit filed by the NorCal Tea Party Patriots can proceed The panel also accused the DOJ lawyers who are representing the IRS in the case of acting in bad faith in arguing against the disclosure.
“The lawyers in the Department of Justice have a long and storied tradition of defending the nation’s interests and enforcing its laws — all of them, not just selective ones — in a manner worthy of the Department’s name. The conduct of the IRS’s attorneys in the district court falls outside that tradition,” Judge Raymond Kethledge wrote in a unanimous opinion for a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. “We expect that the IRS will do better going forward.”
Justice Department officials declined to comment on the judicial drubbing, and the IRS didn’t respond to a request for comment on the unusually strong language Judge Kethledge used.
The Justice Department closed its two-year investigation into whether the IRS improperly targeted conservative groups last October, declining to charge anyone involved, including Lois Lerner — who continues to enjoy a six-figure annual pension since her early retirement from “government service.” The DOJ probe merely found:
… substantial evidence of mismanagement, poor judgment and institutional inertia leading to the belief by many tax-exempt applicants that the IRS targeted them based on their political viewpoints.
Conservative groups have been trying for years to obtain the full list of non-profit groups that were targeted by the IRS, but the IRS had always refused, citing that the names of groups they victimized were somehow protected taxpayer information. Judge Kethledge finally put that lame excuse to bed:
The IRS said section 6103 of the tax code prevented it from releasing that information.
Judge Kethledge, however, said that turned the law on its head.
“Section 6103 was enacted to protect taxpayers from the IRS, not the IRS from taxpayers,” he wrote.
Edward Greim, a lawyer at Graves Garrett who is representing NorCal Patriots, explained why the group was seeking the names on the list:
“What we’ll be able to see is how, starting in the spring of 2010, with the first one or two groups the IRS targeted, we’ll be able to see that number grow, and we’ll even be able to see at the tail end their possible covering up that conduct,” he said.
He said they suspect the IRS, aware that the inspector general was looking into the tax agency’s behavior, began adding in other groups to try to muddle the perception that only conservatives were being targeted.
Democrats have argued since the IRS scandal broke in May of 2013 that liberal groups were targeted just as much as conservatives were, hence it was a “phony scandal.” This information should be able to dismiss that argument.
The NorCal Patriots case moved to the discovery stage in January, when U.S. District Judge Susan J. Dlott certified it as a class-action lawsuit. Now lawyers for more than 200 tea party groups will be able to ask for all documents related to the targeting, and to depose IRS employees about their actions. The lawyers are hoping that they’ll be able to uncover pertinent information that Congress and the DOJ missed in their own investigations.