Friday, June 22, 2018

Bitcoin Reaches SCOTUS

With only a few days left in the U.S. Supreme Court's term, all eyes have been on SCOTUSblog and other sources for news and analysis. Yesterday, the Court released four opinions, including the much-discussed "Internet sales tax" case South Dakota v. Wayfair, and Pereira v. Sessions, which interpreted rules regarding immigration removal notice and procedure.

Compared to those higher-profile opinions, Wisconsin Central Ltd. v. United States received less attention in yesterday's news media. A case determining that stock options are not taxable compensation under the Railroad Retirement Tax Act, this opinion is likely of greatest interest to tax professionals (or, presumably, retired railroad employees). But something notable lurks in the dissenting opinion by Justice Breyer: the Court’s first-ever reference to the cryptocurrency Bitcoin in its opinions.

Moreover, what we view as money has changed over time. Cowrie shells once were such a medium but no longer are, see J. Weatherford, The History of Money 24 (1997); our currency originally included gold coins and bullion, but, after 1934, gold could not be used as a medium of exchange, see Gold Reserve Act of 1934, ch. 6, § 2, 48 Stat. 337; perhaps one day employees will be paid in Bitcoin or some other type of cryptocurrency, see F. Martin, Money: The Unauthorized Biography—From Coinage to Cryptocurrencies 275–278 (1st Vintage Books ed.2015). Nothing in the statute suggests the meaning of this provision should be trapped in a monetary time warp, forever limited to those forms of money commonly used in the 1930's. (Breyer, J., dissenting)

Bitcoin is no stranger to other U.S. courts. The search term appears in more than 100 opinions on Westlaw, including a 2016 order in the asset-forfeiture case United States v. 50.44 Bitcoins. But yesterday's opinion is the highest court's first reference to Bitcoin, and to cryptocurrency more generally, in an opinion's text. As Breyer acknowledges, the evolving nature of currency suggests that such references will become more commonplace.

Want to learn more about Bitcoin and cryptocurrency? You can find about 30 titles in the Duke University Libraries catalog with a subject search for Bitcoin. (You can also find the Felix Martin title referenced by Justice Breyer in a separate search by title, or by the subject "Money -- History.") A few days before the SCOTUS opinion's release, the Bank for International Settlements released an annual economic report that includes a brief chapter on cryptocurrencies, which describes their history and development and is highly critical of their potential flaws. Bloomberg's Securities Law Daily analyzed that report in more detail.

For help with researching U.S. Supreme Court opinions, cryptocurrency, or any other legal topic, be sure to Ask a Librarian.