American Council of the Blind v. Henry M. Paulson Jr., Secretary of the Treasury
Could there be yet another major change in the works for U.S. currency? The final gavel hasn't dropped on that question, but the U.S. Treasury Department lost a second round in its defense against a suit brought by the American Council of the Blind in an attempt to force change. The Council filed suit under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (29 U.S.C. § 794), alleging that the Treasury Department's failure to design and issue paper currency that is readily distinguishable to the visually impaired constitutes a denial of meaningful access to currency, and that the issuance of currency is an activity conducted by an Executive agency (the Treasury Department) of the U.S. In December 2006, the federal district court denied the government's motion for dismissal, and granted a partial judgment for the plaintiffs.
On May 20, 2008, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed the order of the district court. The court took Treasury to task for presenting faulty cost estimates for redesign of U.S. currency, and pointed out the both the Council and the district court had left it to Treasury to determine how to make currency denominations readily distinguishable to visual-impaired individuals. The court stated that Treasury had not met its burden to prove that the least expensive plan for currency redesign would be an undue financial burden on the government.
If Treasury ultimately makes changes to accommodate visually impaired individuals, there would have to be a major retooling of currency handling equipment, from bill counters to vending machines to ATMs and beyond. If Treasury decides to issue bills that vary in size (as have many nations), that retooling would be even more extensive. After the Court of Appeals ruling, it appears that Treasury's only alternatives to redesigning U.S. cash are an appeal to the Supreme Court or pursuit of congressional action to exclude currency issuance from the scope of the Rehabilitation Act.