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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

IRS and the political valence of constitutional litigation

I have written before about the phenomenon we have seen since 2008 of politically conservative plaintiffs (individual and organizational) bumping up against limitations on constitutional and civil rights litigation established in cases brought by politically liberal plaintiffs (think of all the birther lawsuits dismissed for lack of standing). The lawsuit filed Tuesday by True the Vote over the IRS handling of exemption applications by conservative groups could be the latest example.

In addition to a declaratory judgment that the group is entitled to its exemption under the tax laws, the lawsuit brings First Amendment claims under Bivens against various IRS officers and supervisors, including the acting commissioner, former commissioner, and direct of the Exempt Organizations Division. How is that part likely to fare?

• SCOTUS has not yet established whether a First Amendment speech claim can be the basis for Bivens damages, a point the Court reiterated last term (in a case in which the plaintiff was arrested for verbally confronting Dick Cheney in a shopping mall).

• Lower courts are unanimous that a First Amendment claim requires proof of intentional viewpoint discrimination--that the officers acted a certain way because of disagreement with the viewpoint expressed by the speaker. Is using a political identifier per se treatment motivated by disagreement with that viewpoint?

• The Court hinted in Iqbal that there was no supervisory liability under Bivens. Even the most-forgiving view of Iqbal is that the state of mind required for supervisory liability matches the state of mind required for the underlying right. That means the supervisors must have created policies targeting groups because of their viewpoint. But the allegations state that the supervisors "knowingly and willfully applied the IRS Review Policy to True the Vote," which is not sufficient under Iqbal to plead their intent to discriminate.

• Lots of those darn conclusory  and "information and belief" allegations, for example ¶ 54 ("Upon information and belief, under the IRS Review Policy, the IRS and IRSEmployees engaged in other discriminatory conduct toward applicants for tax-exempt status thatwere perceived to hold conservative policy positions or philosophical views contrary to those held by the current Administration."). The complaint has the benefit of media coverage and the Inspector General reports, but it shows how hard it is to allege state of mind and behind-the-scenes action in non-conclusory terms.

• Are the officers entitled to qualified immunity? Is the right allegedly violated clearly established? Courts keep insisting we cannot define the right at too high a level of generality (e.g., "the right to be free from viewpoint discrimination"). Is there case law holding that the First Amendment is violated by the use of political identifiers as the basis for a sorting mechanism for purposes of determining tax exempt status? And since several defendants are (or were) top-ranking federal officials, is this a case subject to Justice Kennedy's concurrence in Ashcroft v. al-Kidd demanding SCOTUS precedent to clearly establish a right as to top-level officials?

The complaint is generally well-drafted and it appears (I know nothing about tax law) the statutory and D/J claims can go somewhere. But the Bivens allegations look no different than in the many other recent lawsuits that SCOTUS and lower courts have rejected for varying reasons.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on May 22, 2013 at 02:34 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink

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