A Bad Day for the IRS in Court

An appeals court decision today should end speculation on Democrats’ claims that the IRS scandal is a non-event. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals heard an appeal last week. The NorCal Tea Party Patriots had filed a class action suit regarding the IRS’s conduct in dealing with applications for non-profit status as a 501(c)(4) organization. The District Court had ordered the IRS to comply with discovery requests. The IRS asked for a “writ of mandamus;” basically, an order to stop the discovery. The first two paragraphs of the decision get to the crux of the matter:

Among the most serious allegations a federal court can address are that an Executive agency has targeted citizens for mistreatment based on their political views. No citizen—Republican or Democrat, socialist or libertarian—should be targeted or even have to fear being targeted on those grounds. Yet those are the grounds on which the plaintiffs allege they were mistreated by the IRS here. The allegations are substantial: most are drawn from findings made by the Treasury Department’s own Inspector General for Tax Administration. Those findings include that the IRS used political criteria to round up applications for tax-exempt status filed by so-called tea-party groups; that the IRS often took four times as long to process tea-party applications as other applications; and that the IRS served tea-party applicants with crushing demands for what the Inspector General called “unnecessary information.”

Yet in this lawsuit the IRS has only compounded the conduct that gave rise to it. The plaintiffs seek damages on behalf of themselves and other groups whose applications the IRS treated in the manner described by the Inspector General. The lawsuit has progressed as slowly as the underlying applications themselves: at every turn the IRS has resisted the plaintiffs’ requests for information regarding the IRS’s treatment of the plaintiff class, eventually to the open frustration of the district court. At issue here are IRS “Be On the Lookout” lists of organizations allegedly targeted for unfavorable treatment because of their political beliefs. Those organizations in turn make up the plaintiff class. The district court ordered production of those lists, and did so again over an IRS motion to reconsider. Yet, almost a year later, the IRS still has not complied with the court’s orders. Instead the IRS now seeks from this court a writ of mandamus, an extraordinary remedy reserved to correct only the clearest abuses of power by a district court. We deny the petition.

Oh, but hasn’t the IRS cooperated with the lawsuit? Hardly. “On the record before us here, the IRS’s response has been one of continuous resistance.” The Court is also making a point by the speed of the decision. This case was heard on March 16th; the decision was released on March 22nd. The Court is sending a message to the IRS: Stop the delaying tactics!

There’s a lot more in this decision, and I hope some tax blogger with far more free time than I do opines on the decision. I’ll end with the Court’s conclusion:

In closing, we echo the district court’s observations about this case. 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. We expect that the IRS will do better going forward. And we order that the IRS comply with the district court’s discovery orders of April 1 and June 16, 2015—without redactions, and without further delay.

Case: United States v. NorCal Tea Party Patriots, et al

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