Lawyer Andrew Cohen analyzes legal affairs for CBS News and CBSNews.com.
What do you get when you take a good idea, a well-meaning law, a group of long-suffering people and a stubborn and heartless bureaucracy? You get The American Council for the Blind v. Paulsen, an important, if not necessarily decisive, federal appeals court decision Tuesday that seems to bring us all closer to the day when visually-impaired people can tell without major effort or charity from strangers the difference between denominations of U.S. paper currency.
The decision is not a terrible shock – it's one of those instances, in fact, where the law happily syncs up with common sense. The law is on the side of blind people here. So are the facts. And you don't need to be a legal expert to understand that the defenses offered up by the Treasury Department are hollow indeed. The feds argue that they don't need to change our currency because there are "portable currency readers" readily available.
But have you ever seen one of those? Me neither.
According to a 1995 report by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, one cited by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the United States is the only country among 171 that "prints bills that are identical in size and color in all denominations… Of the issuing authorities, 128 use paper currency that varies in size between some denominations, 24 use large numerals, 167 use different color schemes for each denomination, and 23 incorporate tactile features….Since 1995, Canada has redesigned its currency to include embossed dots that vary by denomination, and the Euro, introduced in 2002, has incorporated a foil feature perceptible to touch."
Moreover, the Treasury Department over the past few years, in the name of security and for the prevention of counterfeiting, has shown a capacity for changing in slight ways paper currency. As the court's majority declared Tuesday: "The financial costs identified by the Secretary [of the Treasury] are not out of line with the costs associated with other currency changes that the Secretary has made and could be reduced were accommodations made as part of other planned changes."
Despite today's victory for the visually impaired it likely will take years for they and their supporters to achieve their righteous goals. The feds may appeal this ruling to the full panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and/or to the United States Supreme Court. If neither of those panels accept the appeal, the case goes back down to the trial court level to figure out precisely how the Treasury Department must do right by the ruling. And at that point the feds could appeal all over again.
Still, it will become harder, not easier, for the Administration to continue to balk at this reasonable accommodation. The Treasury Department could do itself and the rest of us a big favor by just dropping the legal battle and focusing instead upon fixing the problem. You don't need sight to see the wisdom in that.