CINCINNATI - A federal judge has allowed a lawsuit by 10 tea party groups to move forward against the Internal Revenue Service, rejecting a request by the federal government to dismiss all the allegations that the agency subjected conservative groups to additional, often burdensome scrutiny.
In her ruling Thursday, Judge Susan Dlott allowed two of the tea party groups' claims - including that the IRS discriminated and retaliated against them based on their views in violation of their free speech rights - to survive to trial.
The Cincinnati-based Dlott did dismiss a third claim, ruling the tea party groups could not pursue allegations of privacy violations on behalf of their individual members. The individuals themselves have to do that, she said.
Edward Greim, the lead attorney for the tea party groups, said Friday he is pleased the case will move forward.
"If the government is right in this case, it means that from now on, no matter who the president is, the IRS can pick out a group of people that disagrees with the president and pull those people out, delay them, harass them, target them, and there's nothing anyone can do about it," Greim said. "And our position is very simple: That cannot be true and that's not the republic that we live in."
Greim said he was planning on appealing a portion of Dlott's ruling that won't allow the tea party groups to seek damages from individual IRS employees, though those employees are still named defendants.
"When an officer of the federal government does something that's unconstitutional and they do it with the right level of intent - and we think the evidence here establishes that these individuals did - we think they should be held to answer for their conduct," Greim said.
Justice Department spokeswoman Nicole Navas declined comment, citing the pending litigation.
Among the individuals named in the lawsuit is Lois Lerner, who headed the division that processes applications for tax-exempt status during a time when, the IRS has acknowledged, agents improperly scrutinized applications from tea party and other conservative groups. Twice Lerner refused to answer questions at congressional hearings about the matter, invoking her constitutional right against self-incrimination.
IRS officials have said the heightened scrutiny for tea party groups was initiated by low-level employees in its Cincinnati office.
Congressional investigators have shown that IRS officials in Washington were closely involved in handling tea party applications, many of which languished for more than a year without action. So far they have not publicly produced evidence that anyone outside the agency directed the targeting or knew about it.