The long-running Internal Revenue Service targeting scandal was given fresh life late last week, after a federal appeals court overturned a lower court decision that declared the complaints of several conservative groups against the agency moot.
The lawsuits are related to the agency’s department that reviews applications from groups seeking tax-exempt status. In the year before the 2012 presidential election, numerous conservative groups found their applications delayed by demands for large amounts of background information and supporting data -- requests that went well beyond the normal approval process.
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It later came out that the exempt organizations division had set up a system under which applicants were screened by name using a filter that disproportionately caught conservative-leaning applications in an intensified review process.
One of the organizations that sued for injunctive relief alleged, “delayed processing … harassing, probing, and unconstitutional requests for additional information that … required applicants to disclose, among other things, donor lists, direct and indirect communications with members of legislative bodies, Internet passwords and usernames, copies of social media and other Internet postings, and even the political and charitable activities of family members.”
A lower court dismissed the claims, declaring them “moot” because the IRS has said that it has voluntarily “suspended” the practice. However, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit disagreed, finding that the federal government had failed to meet the burden of proof required for dismissing the case.
Writing for the unanimous panel, Judge David B. Sentelle seemed to take particular exception to the way the IRS announced the end of the program, something the agency referred to as a “suspension.”
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“A violation of right that is ‘suspended until further notice’ has not become the subject of voluntary cessation, with no reasonable expectation of resumption, so as to moot litigation against the violation of rights. Rather, it has at most advised the victim of the violation – ‘you’re alright for now, but there may be another shoe falling.’”
The decision seems to allow for the possibility that the complaints have, in fact, been rendered moot. However, “as the government has not carried its heavy burden of establishing mootness by voluntary cessation” the court found that “The allegations of the complaint are quite sufficient to warrant a merits disposition.”
The decision to return the case to the lower court for further action comes at the same time that congressional Republicans are spearheading an effort to impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, who did not head the agency at the time the targeting scandal erupted but whose handling of the matter has frustrated them. A call to impeach Koskinen was enshrined in the Republican Party platform at the Republican National Committee convention last month.