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Ruling on U.S. Currency and the Blind
By DAVID STOUT
Published: May 20, 2008
WASHINGTON — In a decision that could drastically change the appearance of American money, a federal appeals court panel ruled on Tuesday that the United States discriminates against the blind because the country’s paper currency is the same size regardless of a bill’s value.
The 2-to-1 ruling, which could have implications not only for blind people but also for vending machine-manufacturers and even companies that make wallets and purses, found that the Treasury Department had failed to demonstrate that it would be too burdensome to make bills of different sizes or add features that can 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, but it may become clear sooner rather than later. The government could ask the full 13-member circuit court to reconsider the panel’s ruling, or it could seek quick review by the Supreme Court, something it has 90 days to do.
“We’re reviewing the court’s ruling at this juncture, and no determination has been made as to the government’s next step in this matter,” said Charles Miller, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, which argued the case on behalf of the Treasury Department.
A lawyer for the American Council of the Blind, which brought the lawsuit in 2002, said he hoped that the government “instead of litigating the issue, would solve the problem.” The Treasury Department has the means and technology to change the design of American currency to help the blind, said the lawyer, Jeffrey A. Lovitky of Washington.
The decision on Tuesday upheld a 2006 ruling by Judge James Robertson of Federal District Court, who had concluded that the government illegally discriminated against blind people by printing its paper currency on bills of the same size that cannot be distinguished by touch.
“Of the more than 180 countries that issue paper currency,” Judge Robertson wrote on Nov. 28, 2006, “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, given the fact that the government spent more than $4 billion producing currency in the decade before his ruling, Judge Robertson said.
The appeals court panel noted, in any event, that the Bureau of Engraving and Printing occasionally redesigns currency to thwart counterfeiters. It noted, too, that Canada redesigned its currency in 1995 to include embossed dots that vary by denomination, and that the euro, introduced in 2002, has a foil feature perceptible to touch.
The dissenter in Tuesday’s circuit ruling was Judge A. Raymond Randolph, who said the majority had too quickly accepted the plaintiffs’ assertions and rejected the government’s evidence that retooling or replacing the approximately seven million food-and-beverage vending machines in the country could cost $3.5 billion if bills of different size were introduced.
Other parties who would be affected would be manufacturers of money-dispensing automatic teller machines and, for that matter, manufacturers of wallets and purses, Judge Randolph said.
But Mr. Lovitky said changing the size and shape of American paper currency would help millions of people who are either legally blind or have seriously impaired vision as they age. Many of these people are on fixed incomes. For them, “a currency mistake — intentional or otherwise — has real consequences, Mr. Lovitky said.
“And their numbers are increasing,” he said.