Supreme Court Denies Federal Disability Benefits to Residents of Puerto Rico

A cyclist rides in front of the United States Supreme Court building in Washington, March 15, 2022.

Emilie Elconin | Reuters

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a federal law that denies Puerto Rican residents disability benefits.

The court ruled 8 to 1 that Congress could deny Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, benefits to residents of Puerto Rico because they failed to pay all federal taxes.

Judge Sonia Sotomayor, one of three liberals on the court, whose family is originally from Puerto Rico, dissented.

SSI benefits are intended to provide regular financial assistance to disabled and elderly people in need. The program is available to people living in all 50 US states, but not to those living in certain US territories.

The issue in the High Court centered on whether the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution required Congress to extend SSI benefits to Puerto Rico.

A lower appeals court had ruled that the exclusion of residents from SSI benefits was unconstitutional. The Justice Department argued in the Supreme Court last year that the appeal decision should be overturned.

Puerto Rico has been a US territory since the Spanish–American War in 1898, and its residents are US citizens, but they do not have a vote for president or representation in Congress. They also pay no federal income tax.

Judge Brett Kavanaugh wrote in the majority opinion that “Congress has long maintained federal tax and benefit programs for residents of Puerto Rico and other territories that differ in some respects from federal tax and benefit programs benefits for residents of the 50 states”.

Kavanaugh noted that residents of Puerto Rico are mostly exempt from federal income, estate, and excise taxes, among others. They pay other federal taxes, such as Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment taxes, and they are eligible for benefit programs funded by those taxes.

“But just as not all federal taxes extend to residents of Puerto Rico, neither do all federal benefit programs extend to residents of Puerto Rico,” Kavanaugh wrote.

The case dates back to 2013, when New York resident Jose Luis Vaello Madero, who was receiving SSI benefits, moved to Puerto Rico where he continued to receive those benefits, which totaled more than $28,000, for several years. . The government sued Vaello Madero, but a federal district court and federal appeals court sided with him.

The Supreme Court, however, ruled that existing legal precedent indicated that Congress had met its demands by distinguishing Puerto Rico from the 50 states with respect to SSI benefits.

Siding with Vaello Madero could result in a host of “far-reaching consequences,” Kavanaugh added, including potentially inflicting “significant new financial burdens on Puerto Rican residents.”

Sotomayor was a dissenter. “In my opinion, there is no rational basis for Congress to treat needy citizens living anywhere in the United States so differently from others,” she wrote.

“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 wrote.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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