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Phony Scandal? Courts Open Window on the IRS’s Political Litmus Tests

Interest in the Internal Revenue Service’s outrageous practice of subjecting politically conservative groups to discriminatory treatment has died down a bit since the revelations about this scandal first hit the news a year ago. But a court decision that was handed down earlier this week about a similar instance of potential government misconduct may shed more light on the way the Tea Party and other right-wing organizations were given the business by Lois Lerner and the rest of what appears to be a highly politicized bureaucracy at the heart of our tax collection system.

On Tuesday, Federal Judge Ketanje Brown Jackson issued the first substantive ruling in any suit that challenged the IRS’s pose of political neutrality under the Obama administration. The case concerns Z Street, a Philadelphia area-based pro-Israel organization that filed for tax-exempt status in December 2009 because of its role in educating the public about Israel and the Middle East conflict. The group’s founder Lori Lowenthal Marcus wrote in the Jewish Press this week about what followed:

On July 19, 2010, when counsel for Z STREET spoke with the IRS agent to whom the organization’s application had been assigned, that agent said that a determination on Z STREET’s application may be further delayed because the IRS gave “special scrutiny” to organizations connected to Israel and especially to those whose views “contradict those of the administration’s.”

Z Street subsequently sued the government and rightly argued that its constitutional rights had been violated because of the “viewpoint discrimination” that the IRS agent had openly displayed. Now after years of delays, Judge Jackson has ruled that by asserting that Z Street had no right to sue, the government had tried to “transform a lawsuit that clearly challenges the constitutionality of the process … into a dispute over tax liability.” She similarly dismissed the government’s claims of sovereign immunity.

What has this got to do with the Tea Party and its complaints? Plenty.

As the Wall Street Journal editorial page noted yesterday:

This ruling will force the IRS to open its books on the procedures it used and decisions it made reviewing Z Street’s tax-exempt application, procedures it has tried to keep shrouded. As the case proceeds, Z Street’s attorneys can seek depositions from many who have been part of the larger attempt to sit on similar applications by other conservative groups.

In other words, this case may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back of the IRS’s politically prejudicial policies. If an IRS agent can reject or stall a pro-Israel group’s application on the grounds that “these cases are being sent to a special unit in the D.C. office to determine whether the organization’s activities contradict the Administration’s public policies,” then no group, no matter what its political orientation or cause is safe from being subjected to a political litmus test designed by any administration of either political party.

Z Street’s Marcus deserves praise for having the guts to persist in her challenge to the government for years even though the media had little interest in publicizing what appeared to be an outrageous example of how the IRS had become politicized under the Obama presidency. Last year Marcus learned she wasn’t alone when the news about the Tea Party broke. Now, as her legal process unfolds, Americans may get a better idea about how broken the system has become.

Using the IRS to punish political foes is blatantly illegal. If, as we suspect, the Z Street case reveals the sort of internal email traffic that will reveal how widespread this practice has become in the last five years, perhaps even a liberal mainstream press that still thinks the problems at the IRS are a “phony scandal” will start to pay attention.


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