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Supreme Court appears divided over Puerto Rico’s exclusion from federal benefits

The Supreme Court heard arguments on Tuesday on a potential landmark case to determine whether it is constitutional to deny federal benefits to elderly and disabled U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico, even if they can access them if they live on the mainland .

The judges appeared divided on the issue when they questioned Assistant Attorney General Curtis Gannon as he argued on behalf of the Justice Department to exclude Puerto Rican residents from Supplemental Security Income benefits.

These benefits, also called SSI, are intended to help disabled, elderly and blind people in financial difficulty. They are available to U.S. citizens living in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the Northern Mariana Islands, but not for those living in the other U.S. territories of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and American Samoa.

The matter is being assessed in a case involving José Luis Vaello-Madero, 67, a disabled man who lived in New York City from 1985 to 2013, when he moved to Puerto Rico to care for his wife. He had started receiving SSI benefits in 2012, while still in New York City, until he was told in 2016 that he was not eligible after moving to the island.

A year later, the Social Security Administration filed a civil action against him, demanding that he repay more than $ 28,000 in benefits he received while living in Puerto Rico.

Gannon relied on three key points in pushing the court to overturn a US Court of Appeals ruling last year ruling “invalid” the practice of denying SSI benefits to Puerto Rican residents, saying the government Federal government failed to establish “a rational basis for excluding residents of Puerto Rico from SSI coverage.”

One of those points is based on the fact that Puerto Ricans on the island are exempt from most federal taxes, including income tax.

Liberal Judge Sonia Sotomayor, of Puerto Rican descent, objected, saying Puerto Ricans “pay as much tax, other taxes combined, as other states in the Union.”

Puerto Ricans pay federal payroll taxes and help fund public programs like Medicare and Social Security, paying more than $ 4 billion a year in federal taxes to the United States.

“It’s good to choose a single tax, but it’s true across the country,” Sotomayor said. “So I don’t know how the one or two tax exemption is preventing you from seeing whether the government distinction is rational based on the needs of the citizens who are supposed to receive the money.”

Differences in taxation limit Puerto Ricans on the island in other ways, including lack of electoral representation in Congress and the inability to vote in US presidential elections, among other restrictions when it comes to accessing federal programs safety net.

Sotomayor added that the SSI program is fully funded by the federal government, which means states incur no cost when making these benefits available to their residents.

“I don’t understand what the different relationship with Puerto Rico has to do with this program as there is no cost to the government,” she said. “The money goes directly to the people, not to the government.”

Approximately 700,000 people living in Puerto Rico would be eligible for SSI benefits if the Supreme Court dismissed the Justice Department’s appeal. That would mean a total of $ 1.8 billion to $ 2.4 billion per year for skilled Puerto Rican residents over the decade, according to the Social Security Administration. Almost 44 percent of Puerto Ricans live in poverty.

The appeal was originally filed by the administration of then-President Donald Trump, a Republican. His Democratic successor, Joe Biden, continued the call, though he vowed to ensure residents of Puerto Rico have access to the benefits of the SSI during his presidential campaign, while urging Congress to expand the SSI to Puerto Rico. .

During his appeal, Gannon argued that “Congress often legislates differently” on matters relating to US territories on the basis of a territorial clause enshrined in the Constitution.

A series of Supreme Court rulings, known as Island Affairs, essentially allowed Congress and the federal government to treat U.S. territories as foreigners for national purposes and states for international purposes, especially when it is a question of financing public programs. They were written by most of the Supreme Court justices who legalized racial segregation under Plessy v. Ferguson.

But the Vaello-Madero case now gives the current Supreme Court, which has a 6-3 Conservative majority, a chance to review such rulings.

“Why shouldn’t we just admit that island affairs were badly decided? Conservative Judge Neil Gorsuch asked Gannon as he pressured him to voice the Biden administration’s position on the cases.

Although Gannon did not defend the reasoning and rhetoric of island affairs, he said that “the tribunal does not need to say anything else on island affairs to decide this case.” Instead, he focused on the argument that Congress and the federal government may treat American citizens differently depending on where they live since the constitutional right to equal protection does not include geographic equality.

Treat an American Citizen as a “Foreigner”

Congress first decided to exclude Puerto Rico from the SSI program when it was enacted in 1972. Instead, Puerto Ricans are eligible for a different government program called Aid for the Elderly, Blind, and Disabled. To qualify, people cannot earn more than $ 65 per month, compared to $ 750 per month for SSI. Those who qualify for the Puerto Rico program receive an average benefit of $ 77 per month, while SSI recipients receive an average of $ 533 per month.

For Vaello-Madero’s lawyer, Hermann Ferré, the problem at the heart of his client’s case is “to treat a citizen as if he were a foreigner because he resides in Puerto Rico”, adding that even American citizens who are not from Puerto Rico Rican descendants would be treated as foreigners if they moved to the island.

Conservative judges such as Brett Kavanaugh have questioned the implications of a ruling in favor of Vaello-Madero, including whether other benefits should be extended to residents of U.S. territories.

Kavanaugh said Ferré presented “convincing political arguments” but noted that the Constitution’s territorial clause could be something “people would like to change” – but that is not the role of the court.

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