The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the Constitution does not require Congress to extend a federal disability benefits program to residents of Puerto Rico.
The big picture: In an 8-1 decision, the court ruled that because Congress treats residents of Puerto Rico “differently” from those who live in the states for tax law purposes, “it could do the same for social advantages”.
- A lower court had previously ruled that excluding residents of the territory from receiving benefits was unconstitutional.
- Judge Sonia Sotomayor was the only one to disagree.
Catch up fast: The case, United States vs. Vaello Madero, involved a man, Jose Luis Vaello Madero, who received Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits while residing in New York City. However, he later moved to Puerto Rico.
- “Unaware of Vaello Madero’s new residence, the government continued to pay him SSI benefits. The government eventually sued Vaello Madero to recover these errant payments, which totaled more than $28,000,” according to the decision of the court.
- Vaello Madero later argued that this decision was unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment.
The context: The SSI program provides monthly payments to low-income adults and children with disabilities. People aged 65 and over without disabilities are also eligible for the program.
Details: “The question posed is whether the equal protection component of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment requires Congress to make Supplemental Security Income benefits available to residents of Puerto Rico to the same extent as the Congress makes these benefits available to state residents,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in the court opinion.
- “In light of the text of the Constitution, long-standing historical practice and the precedents of this Court, the answer is no,” Kavanaugh added.
- “In our view, the precedents of this Court, in addition to the constitutional text and historical practice discussed above, establish that Congress may distinguish between state territories in tax and benefit programs such as Supplemental Security Income , as long as Congress has a rational basis for doing so.”
- “Congress may extend Supplemental Security Income benefits to residents of Puerto Rico. Indeed, the Solicitor General has informed the Court that the President supports such legislation as a matter of policy.”
The other side: “In my opinion, there is no rational basis for Congress to treat needy citizens living anywhere in the United States so differently from others,” Sotomayor wrote in his dissent.
- “To decide otherwise, as the Court does, is irrational and contrary to the very nature of the SSI program and to the equal protection of citizens guaranteed by the Constitution.”
- Sotomayor added that since residents of Puerto Rico have no electoral representation in Congress, “they cannot rely on their elected representatives to address the punitive disparities suffered by resident citizens of Puerto Rico under the unequal treatment of Congress.” .