Supreme Court Says Congress Can Deny Federal Disability Benefits to Residents of Puerto Rico

Washington— The Supreme Court said Thursday that Congress is under no obligation to extend federal disability benefits to residents of Puerto Rico, ruling that denying the payments, which are by law only available to residents of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, does not violate the Constitution. .

The court ruled 8-1 against the offer for Puerto Rico residents to receive equal treatment under the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, with Judge Brett Kavanaugh delivering the majority opinion. Judge Sonia Sotomayor was the sole dissenter in the case, known as United States v. Vaello Madero.

The Safety Net Program, signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1972, provides monthly payments to older Americans and those who are disabled or blind.

“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,” Kavanaugh wrote. “In light of the text of the Constitution, the long-standing historical practice and the precedents of this court, the answer is no.”

But in his dissent, Sotomayor, who is Puerto Rican, called it “completely irrational” to deny Puerto Rican residents SSI benefits because they don’t pay enough taxes, given the program’s purpose. and said Congress’s decision to deny a social safety net it provides to nearly all other U.S. citizens is “particularly cruel given the urgent need for help these citizens have.”

“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 the constitutionally guaranteed equal protection of citizens.”

Pedro Pierluisi, Governor of Puerto Rico, slammed the Supreme Court’s decision and said it underscored Puerto Rico’s need for statehood.

“The Supreme Court’s decision in the Vaello Madero case on the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program proves once again that Puerto Rico’s territorial status discriminates against U.S. citizens on the island and allows Congress to do whatever he wants with us,” he said in a statement.

Pierluisi reiterated his support for statehood, an issue that has divided residents of Puerto Rico.

“It is clear that our people, especially the most vulnerable, are suffering the consequences of this unequal treatment under the American flag … enough of this colonial status that discriminates against us and affects our quality of life,” he said.

The high court dispute arose out of an application for SSI benefits filed by Jose Luis Vaello Madero, a Puerto Rican-born U.S. citizen who moved from New York in 1985. Vaello Madero began receiving the payments in 2012 after being ill, but became ineligible after moving from New York to Puerto Rico in 2013.

The federal government, however, continued the monthly SSI payments, as they were unaware he had moved. But after learning of the payments Vaello Madero received while living in Puerto Rico, the government sued to recover the $28,000 he allegedly received in error. Vaello Madero, however, argued that Congress’ exclusion of Puerto Rican residents from the SSI program was unconstitutional.

Vaello Madero was successful in the lower courts, but the Supreme Court overturned the decision of the 1st United States Circuit Court of Appeals, with Kavanaugh writing that two prior High Court decisions dictated his outcome.

“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 it,” Kavanaugh wrote.

The court’s eight-member majority further warned that a ruling in favor of Vaello Madero “would have potentially significant consequences” as lawmakers would have to extend numerous other federal benefit programs to residents of the five U.S. territories.

By extension, Kavanaugh wrote that residents of all 50 states could then request that federal taxes be imposed on residents of Puerto Rico and other territories, which he said would impose “significant” financial burdens on Puerto Rican residents. and would have “serious implications” for their economy.

“The Constitution grants Congress substantial discretion over how to structure federal tax and benefit programs for residents of the territories. By exercising this discretion, Congress may extend Supplemental Security Income benefits to residents of Puerto Rico,” Kavanaugh wrote, adding “the limited question before this court is whether, under the Constitution, Congress must extend Supplemental Security Income to residents of Puerto Rico to the same extent as to residents of the United States The answer is no.

The Justice Department said President Biden supports legislation extending SSI benefits to residents of Puerto Rico.

Cristina Corujo contributed to this report.

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