Supreme Court Upholds Puerto Rico’s Disqualification From Disability Benefits

The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a federal law that denies disability benefits to U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico.

In an 8-1 decision, the majority ruled that Congress did not violate the Constitution by excluding Puerto Rican residents from Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a monthly cash payment for the elderly, blind, or disabled. low income.

Judge Sonia Sotomayor, the most liberal judge on the court, issued a solo dissent.

The majority opinion, written by Judge Brett Kavanaugh, sided with the Biden administration’s argument that the United States has a valid justification for excluding Puerto Rico because of the exemption of its residents. most federal taxes, including income tax.

“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.

“But 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,” he said. he continued. “The answer is no.”

The ruling overturns lower court rulings that sided with Jose Luis Vaello-Madero, a Puerto Rican-born US citizen who began collecting SSI benefits while living in New York after developing problems debilitating health. His benefits were cut after the government discovered he had moved to Puerto Rico and the United States sued to recover approximately $28,000 in SSI benefits he received while living. the low.

The law that established the SSI, passed in 1972, granted eligibility only to residents of the 50 states or the District of Columbia and excluded Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico has its own separate assistance program for indigent, blind, or disabled seniors, but with average monthly payments of $75, the program is far less generous than SSI, which on average gives recipients in the continental United States around $590 per month.

Sotomayor, disagreeing, said she would have sided with Vaello-Madero.

“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.”

Updated at 10:45 a.m.

About Antoine L. Cassell

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