Judges Running Amok (Again)

Some things you just can't make up.

Earlier this week, a federal district judge in Washington, D.C., ruled that the Treasury Department is in violation of federal antidiscrimination laws because blind persons cannot distinguish the different denominations of U.S. currency (e.g., all bills, $5, $10, $20, etc., are the same size and feel the same).  The judge has ordered the agency to start working within ten days on ways to make the various bills capable of being identified by the blind.  (See news report here
.)

I am sympathetic to blind people, but this ruling is outrageous.  How can a single federal judge decide that the Treasury Department has to revise all U.S. currency?  There is no legal, political, or moral theory that can justify such judicial overreaching. 

The judge based his decision on the federal Rehabilitation Act.  (For the judge's opinion, see here.)  This statute, which was enacted in 1973, prohibits discrimination against disabled people in federal employment and in federal programs.

Frankly, it is inconceivable that Congress intended the Rehabilitation Act to be used to require the Treasury Department to revise all U.S. currency to meet the needs ot the blind.  But the judge in this case clearly wanted this result, and then "reasoned backwards" (as lawyers say) to justify his decision.  Backwards reasoning is right.

One of the considerations cited by the judge in his opinion (at 4) is the fact that "of the more than 180 countries that issue paper currency, only the United States prints bills that are identical in size and color in all their denominations."  Assuming this is true, this has nothing to do with the meaning of the Rehabilitation Act or the rights of blind people under federal law.  This appears to be yet another example of the use of international norms by elite American judges to support their "interpretations" of American law to comport with their own policy preferences.

Before the drastic step of revising all U.S. currency to meet the needs of blind people is taken, it should first be decided by Congress, or at least by the Treasury Department, which has been delegated authority by Congress over matters relating to currency.  Indeed, the judge's opinion (at 7) highlights several instances when this issue has been considered by Congress.  Yet Congress to date has not required the Treasury Department to take the step that this one unelected, unaccountable judge has now ordered.  This stands representative democracy on its head.  Moreover, in reaching his decision, the judge appears to have been influenced (at 9) by a report from the National Academy of Sciences criticizing U.S. currency for being difficult to use by blind persons.  Since when does the NAS make governmental decisions for the rest of us?

The judge's opinion in this case (brought by a special interest group) is replete with the requisite case citations and legal analysis, of course.  But it clearly invokes an authority that is non-existent, and orders a remedy that lies far outside the legitimate scope of the judge's mandate under the Constitution and laws of the United States. 

Presumably the government will appeal the decision to the D.C. Court of Appeals and, if necessary, to the Supreme Court.  At some point, hopefully, judicial sanity -- and the rule of law -- will prevail.

Steven M. Warshawsky
Some things you just can't make up.

Earlier this week, a federal district judge in Washington, D.C., ruled that the Treasury Department is in violation of federal antidiscrimination laws because blind persons cannot distinguish the different denominations of U.S. currency (e.g., all bills, $5, $10, $20, etc., are the same size and feel the same).  The judge has ordered the agency to start working within ten days on ways to make the various bills capable of being identified by the blind.  (See news report here
.)

I am sympathetic to blind people, but this ruling is outrageous.  How can a single federal judge decide that the Treasury Department has to revise all U.S. currency?  There is no legal, political, or moral theory that can justify such judicial overreaching. 

The judge based his decision on the federal Rehabilitation Act.  (For the judge's opinion, see here.)  This statute, which was enacted in 1973, prohibits discrimination against disabled people in federal employment and in federal programs.

Frankly, it is inconceivable that Congress intended the Rehabilitation Act to be used to require the Treasury Department to revise all U.S. currency to meet the needs ot the blind.  But the judge in this case clearly wanted this result, and then "reasoned backwards" (as lawyers say) to justify his decision.  Backwards reasoning is right.

One of the considerations cited by the judge in his opinion (at 4) is the fact that "of the more than 180 countries that issue paper currency, only the United States prints bills that are identical in size and color in all their denominations."  Assuming this is true, this has nothing to do with the meaning of the Rehabilitation Act or the rights of blind people under federal law.  This appears to be yet another example of the use of international norms by elite American judges to support their "interpretations" of American law to comport with their own policy preferences.

Before the drastic step of revising all U.S. currency to meet the needs of blind people is taken, it should first be decided by Congress, or at least by the Treasury Department, which has been delegated authority by Congress over matters relating to currency.  Indeed, the judge's opinion (at 7) highlights several instances when this issue has been considered by Congress.  Yet Congress to date has not required the Treasury Department to take the step that this one unelected, unaccountable judge has now ordered.  This stands representative democracy on its head.  Moreover, in reaching his decision, the judge appears to have been influenced (at 9) by a report from the National Academy of Sciences criticizing U.S. currency for being difficult to use by blind persons.  Since when does the NAS make governmental decisions for the rest of us?

The judge's opinion in this case (brought by a special interest group) is replete with the requisite case citations and legal analysis, of course.  But it clearly invokes an authority that is non-existent, and orders a remedy that lies far outside the legitimate scope of the judge's mandate under the Constitution and laws of the United States. 

Presumably the government will appeal the decision to the D.C. Court of Appeals and, if necessary, to the Supreme Court.  At some point, hopefully, judicial sanity -- and the rule of law -- will prevail.

Steven M. Warshawsky