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Supreme Court says Congress can deny federal disability benefits to Puerto Rico residents

Supreme Court rules against Puerto Rico benefits
Supreme Court upholds Puerto Rico’s exclusion from disability benefits 01:25

Washington — The Supreme Court on Thursday said Congress is not required to extend federal disability benefits to residents of Puerto Rico, finding that denying the payments, which are by law available only to residents of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, does not violate the Constitution.

The court ruled 8-1 against the bid by Puerto Rico residents to receive equal treatment under the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, with Justice Brett Kavanaugh delivering the opinion for the majority. Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the only 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 people with disabilities or blindness.

"The question presented is whether the equal-protection component of the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause requires Congress to make Supplemental Security Income benefits available to residents of Puerto Rico to the same extent that Congress makes those benefits available to residents of the states," Kavanaugh wrote. "In light of the text of the Constitution, longstanding historical practice, and this court's precedents, the answer is no."

But in her dissent, Sotomayor, who is Puerto Rican, called it "utterly irrational" to deny SSI benefits to Puerto Rico residents because they don't pay enough in taxes, given the purpose of the program, and said Congress' decision to deny them a social safety net it provides to nearly all other U.S. citizens is "especially cruel given those citizens' dire need for aid."

"In my view, there is no rational basis for Congress to treat needy citizens living anywhere in the United States so differently from others," she wrote. "To hold otherwise, as the court does, is irrational and antithetical to the very nature of the SSI program and the equal protection of citizens guaranteed by the Constitution."

Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico's governor, lambasted the decision by the Supreme Court and said it underscored the need for Puerto Rico to be granted statehood.

"The decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Vaello Madero on the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program proves once again that the territorial status of Puerto Rico is discriminatory for American citizens on the island and allows Congress to do whatever they want with us," he said in a statement.

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

"Clearly our people, particularly the most vulnerable, suffer 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 dispute before the high court arose out of a claim for SSI benefits filed by Jose Luis Vaello Madero, a U.S. citizen born in Puerto Rico who moved from New York in 1985. Vaello Madero began receiving the payments in 2012 after suffering an illness, but became ineligible after moving from New York to Puerto Rico in 2013.

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

Vaello Madero was successful in the lower courts, but the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, with Kavanaugh writing that two earlier decisions from the high court dictated its result.

"In our view, this court's precedents, in addition to the constitutional text and historical practice discussed above, establish that Congress may distinguish the territories from the states in tax and benefits programs such as Supplemental Security Income, so long as Congress has a rational basis for doing so," Kavanaugh wrote. 

The court's eight-member majority further warned that a decision in favor of Vaello Madero "would usher in potentially far-reaching consequences," as lawmakers would have to extend many other federal benefits programs to residents of the five U.S. territories.

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

"The Constitution affords Congress substantial discretion over how to structure federal tax and benefits programs for residents of the Territories. Exercising that 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 States. The answer is no."

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

Cristina Corujo contributed to this report.

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