Supreme Court Rules against Equal Treatment for Puerto Rico

The Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution does not require Congress to extend Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits to residents of Puerto Rico. With a dissenting opinion from Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court ruled 8-1 that Congress may refuse SSI payments to people who live in Puerto Rico, even if they would be eligible if they lived in a State.

SSSI is a program for elderly people and people with disabilities.

Rational basis

Congress is allowed to treat Puerto Rico differently from States as long as there is a “rational basis” for the difference. The Department of Justice position was that Puerto Rico has a difference in tax responsibilities from States, and therefore could also be treated differently when it comes to federal benefits. The Supreme Court agreed.

“[J]ust as not every federal tax extends to residents of Puerto Rico,” the court said, “so too not every federal benefits program extends to residents of Puerto Rico.”

The case centered on Jose Luis Vaello Madero, who received SSI payments while living in New York. When he moved to Puerto Rico, he became ineligible for SSI payments.

“The question presented,” says the court, “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.”

They continued, ” In light of the text of the Constitution, longstanding historical practice, and this Court’s precedents, the answer is no.”

Consequences

The court also speculated that accepting Vaello Madero’s arguments for equality “would usher in potentially far-reaching consequences.”

“For one, Congress would presumably need to extend not just Supplemental Security Income but also many other federal benefits programs to residents of the Territories in the same way that those programs cover residents of the States. And if this Court were to require identical treatment on the benefits side, residents of the States could presumably insist that federal taxes be imposed on residents of Puerto Rico and other Territories in the same way that those taxes are imposed on residents of the States.”

The court did not address the question of whether residents of Puerto Rico should be eligible for SSI. “Congress may extend Supplemental Security Income benefits to residents of Puerto Rico,” they said. “Indeed, the Solicitor General has informed the Court that the President supports such legislation as a matter of policy. 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 States.”

“The answer,” they concluded, “is no.”

Sotomayor’s dissent

Justice Sotomayor dissented.

“[T]he Court holds that Congress’ decision to exclude citizen residents of Puerto Rico from this important safety-net program is consistent with the Fifth Amendment’s equal protection guarantee. I disagree. 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. I respectfully dissent.”

She explained, “SSI benefits do not vary based on the specific State or Territory that a beneficiary is located in, as long as the beneficiary is otherwise eligible. In sum, SSI created a fully nationalized assistance program with federal administration, federal determination of eligibility, and financed entirely from federal funds.”

“Although Puerto Rico is not a State, it has been part of the United States for well over a century, and people born in Puerto Rico are U. S. citizens. In other contexts, Congress has made clear that references to the ‘United States’ include Puerto Rico,” Sotomayor continued. “While it is true that residents of Puerto Rico typically are exempt from paying some federal taxes, that distinction does not create a rational basis to distinguish between them and other SSI recipients. By definition, SSI recipients pay few if any taxes at all.”

Read the decision.

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