HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

New Currency?

The New York Times reports today on the change that may be occuring to our currency - no its not new faces but new sizes, colors and textures.  David Stout writes,

In a decision that could radically change the size, the color and even the feel of American money, a federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday that the United States discriminates against the blind and those with limited vision because its paper currency is all the same size regardless of a bill’s value.

The ruling is sure to please blind people and those whose sight is weakening with illness or age. Unless overturned on appeal, it also holds the potential to send manufacturers of vending machines back to the drawing boards, open new fashion frontiers for wallet makers and cause the term “greenback” to become increasingly quaint.

The 2-to-1 decision, by a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, held that the Treasury Department had failed to demonstrate that it would be too burdensome to make bills of different sizes or add features that could be read by touch to distinguish monetary value.

“A large majority of other currency systems have accommodated the visually impaired, and the secretary does not explain why U.S. currency should be any different,” Judge Judith W. Rogers wrote for herself and Judge Thomas B. Griffith, referring to Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., the nominal defendant.

What happens next is not certain. The government could appeal to the full 13-member appeals court (one of whose judges, David S. Tatel, is blind), or it could seek quick review by the Supreme Court, a step it has 90 days to take. . . . 

The suit was brought under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which addresses discrimination in federal programs. The appeals court said Secretary Paulson had acknowledged that the present currency system made blind people “dependent on the kindness of others.” And, it said, their plight is not satisfactorily remedied by currency-reading devices, which can be expensive and quite cumbersome: one costs $270 and has trouble reading $20 bills.

The decision upheld a 2006 ruling by Judge James Robertson of the Federal District Court in Washington, to which the case will be returned for consideration of remedies unless the government succeeds on further appeal.  “Of the more than 180 countries that issue paper currency,” Judge Robertson wrote in his decision a year and a half ago, “only the United States prints bills that are identical in size and color in all their denominations.”

Judge Robertson rejected the government’s arguments that making bills identifiable by touch would create an undue financial burden: an estimated $178 million for new printing presses, for instance, and up to $50 million for new plates. Those costs are not significant, he said, given that the government spent more than $4 billion producing currency in the decade before his ruling. . . .

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