Court Battles

Supreme Court upholds Puerto Rico’s exclusion 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 ruling, the majority held that Congress had not run afoul of the Constitution by excluding residents of Puerto Rico from Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a monthly cash payment for low-income elderly, blind or disabled people.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court’s most liberal justice, issued a solo dissent.

The majority opinion, authored by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, sided with the Biden administration’s argument that the U.S. has a valid justification for excluding Puerto Rico due to its residents’ exemption from most federal taxes, including income tax.

“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. 

“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,” he continued. “The answer is no.”

The decision reverses lower court rulings that had sided with Jose Luis Vaello-Madero, a U.S. citizen born in Puerto Rico, who began collecting SSI benefits while living in New York after he developed debilitating health issues. His benefits were cut off after the government discovered he had relocated to Puerto Rico and the U.S. sued to recover roughly $28,000 in SSI benefits he received while living there.

The law that established 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 aid program for indigent people who are elderly, blind or disabled, but with average monthly payments of $75, the program is far less generous than SSI, which on average gives recipients on the U.S. mainland around $590 per month.

Sotomayor, in dissent, indicated that she would have sided with Vaello-Madero.

“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 anti- thetical to the very nature of the SSI program and the equal protection of citizens guaranteed by the Constitution.”

Updated at 10:45 a.m.

Tags Brett Kavanaugh disability benefits Disability benefits Federal benefits Puerto Rico Puerto Rico Sonia Sotomayor Supreme Court Supreme Court

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