Reach into your wallet for a five dollar bill in the near future, and you will likely pull out a much-downsized, multi-colored version of the venerable green bill with the visage of Abraham Lincoln printed thereon. You will soon have to search in vain for uniformly-sized and colored tens, twenties, fifties or hundreds. Is this dramatic change the result of Congress having passed a law requiring new designs for all currency bills larger than one dollar? Nope. It’s because of a special-interest lawsuit.
A little over three years ago, a federal court ordered the Treasury Department to begin the process of radically changing all US currency above the denomination of $1. That decision was subsequently affirmed in 2008 by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. All this judicial decision-making is based on a 1970s-era federal law, the “Rehabilitation Act,” that was intended to extend civil rights to disabled individuals. While this law had been employed in a number of areas to remove barriers to disabled persons seeking employment and access to various facilities and services, in 2002 an advocacy group – the American Council of the Blind (ACB) — filed a lawsuit interpreting the Act as requiring the government to design its currency in such a way as to be easily identifiable by the blind and the visually-impaired.
That lawsuit has now become the vehicle forcing a multi-hundred million dollar change in US currency. Uniformly-sized and -designed US currency, which has served America well for so many decades, will soon be a relic of the past — but not because of action by the Congress or the President of the United States as representatives of the citizenry. This change is being forced on the American people because of creative advocacy by a special-interest organization which was able to convince a handful of unelected federal appeals court judges to expansively interpret a federal statute, that arguably was not even intended to reach an issue such as currency design.
The federal judges apparently were swayed also by the fact that many nations other than the United States already have switched to multi-sized paper currency incorporating all manner of visual and tactile identifiers. The judges’ decision was arrived at notwithstanding that the number of people in the country who are actually blind is less than one-tenth of one percent of the US population of nearly 309 million, and even though other organizations advocating for the blind (such as the National Federation of the Blind) did not support the approach taken by the ACB.
In short, this is another example of important public policy matters being decided not by the people’s representatives, but by shrewd advocacy groups and federal judges eager to interpret federal laws expansively and to leave their imprimatur far beyond the confines of the courtroom. In the near future, when you search in vain for the uniquely American currency of uniform and professional size and design, and you find only oddly-shaped, multi-colored and highly-textured bills that are little different from bills circulated by other countries, remember you have a couple of unelected judges and powerful special interest groups to thank.