The Internal Revenue Service has used a creative legal dodge to attempt to avoid handing over  court-ordered material in the agency's targeting of tea party groups.

The IRS argues that it can't release this material (which might reveal which agents were involved in targeting conservatives) because of Section 6103 of the U.S. code. But Section 6103 protects the private information of applicants for tax-exempt status, the very people targeted by the IRS, and not the IRS.

The Wall Street Journal comments:

Nice try. Writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, Judge Raymond Kethledge [of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals] dismantled that argument and excoriated the IRS for stonewalling during discovery. Charges that an executive agency targeted citizens for their political views are “among the most serious allegations a federal court can address,” he writes. In this case, he added, they are “substantial” and based on a report by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.

Equally appalling is the agency’s effort to obstruct the legal process. “[I]n this lawsuit the IRS has only compounded the conduct that gave rise to it,” Judge Kethledge wrote, calling the IRS response “one of continuous resistance.” He added: “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.”

. . .

The IRS claimed Section 6103 protects “names and other identifying information” of applicants for tax-exempt status, but none of that protection applies to groups whose applications are approved, the court noted. Nor does it comply with the statute’s definition of protected taxpayer identity, so “as a matter of elementary statutory interpretation, the IRS’s assertion that applicant names are return information is meritless.” Ouch.

If the IRS complies with the court and turns over the material (doubtful?), then we may finally see what actually went on in the targeting of conservative groups for extra scrutiny. Holding up these declarations of tax exempt status caused many tea party organizations to go dark in the 2012 presidential campaign and this may have had an effect on the outcome of the election.

Of particular interest, if the court actually succeeds in getting the IRS to hand over the documents, is whether the Justice Department was aware of the targeting.