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United States

Bitcoin’s historic first mention in US Supreme Court opinion Featured

June 22, 2018 by Mark Knowles
History was made at the US Supreme Court this week when Justice Breyer mentioned Bitcoin and Cryptocurrencies in his dissenting opinion.
US Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer made history when he mentioned cryptocurrency in his recent dissenting opinion. Mark Thomas/Pixabay


A passing reference to Bitcoin in a dissenting opinion by US Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer has made history as the first ever mention of cryptocurrency in an opinion by the court.

On June 21, the Supreme Court issued a ruling on Wisconsin Central Ltd. v. United States, a case involving a dispute over whether worker’s stock options can be taxed as a kind of “compensation” in the same way that money is.

While the 5-4 majority opinion ruled that employees should not be taxed for exercising stock options, since they do not constitute a form of “money remuneration”, the case nevertheless forced the court to examine the question “what is money?”

The dissenting opinion, drafted by the 79-year-old associate justice Stephen Breyer and backed by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan, argues that the nature of what constitutes “money” is less rigid than the majority’s interpretation and noted that what we consider money has changed over time.

“Moreover, what we view as money has changed over time. Cowrie shells once were such a medium but no longer are… our currency originally included gold coins and bullion, but, after 1934, gold could not be used as a medium of exchange… perhaps one day employees will be paid in Bitcoin or some other type of cryptocurrency,” wrote Justice Breyer.

While only a passing reference, it has caused many observers to ponder the implications for future Supreme Court cases involving cryptocurrencies, with many noting the opinion augers well for the future of cryptocurrencies.

The reference shows that that at least some of those that make up the top US court are sympathetic to the idea that a cryptocurrency is a kind of money, as opposed to a form of property (as the Internal Revenue Service has ruled) or commodity (in the view of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and, more recently, a US district court judge).

The court’s reference to Bitcoin has sparked much interest in the cryptocurrency community and it seems like only a matter of time before the court will have to directly consider the question of whether or not cryptocurrencies can be considered “money”, a decision which will no doubt have far-reaching legal implications.

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Mark Knowles

Mark Knowles, Coinlaw

With more than a decade of experience as a journalist and editor, Mark has now turned his focus to the blockchain and cryptocurrency revolution that is currently reshaping the global... view profile
Mark Knowles is a member of the Coinlaw team. Read more about our team.

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