Supreme Court grapples with excluding Puerto Rico from federal benefits program

The Supreme Court on Tuesday appeared uncertain about how to handle a federal law that denies disability benefits to U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico.

At issue is whether Congress violated constitutional protections by excluding residents of Puerto Rico from Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a monthly cash payment for low-income elderly, blind or disabled people.

Some of the justices directed probing questions at the Department of Justice (DOJ) lawyer defending the exclusion of the territory’s residents from the benefit program.

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“Needy is needy, whether in Puerto Rico or the mainland, none of the people who receive it on the mainland pay taxes,” said Justice Sonia SotomayorSonia SotomayorOvernight Health Care — Another Texas abortion setback Supreme Court rebuffs abortion providers again over Texas 6-week ban Supreme Court sides with murder defendant in major evidentiary ruling MORE, whose parents were born in Puerto Rico. “None of the money is or would go to Puerto Rico for its self governance. I do think that restrictions have to be rational, and I'm just not quite sure why one would say that it's rational to treat a group of people, of citizens, differently from other citizens on the mainland when the need is the same.” 

The DOJ argued the U.S. has a valid justification for excluding Puerto Rico, pointing to its residents’ general exemption from paying most federal taxes, including income tax. The government also noted that adding Puerto Rico to the disability program would increase costs by $2 billion per year.

Although the Justice Department is defending the provision of the law that excludes Puerto Rico, President BidenJoe BidenUS threatens sweeping export controls against Russian industries Headaches intensify for Democrats in Florida US orders families of embassy staff in Ukraine to leave country MORE indicated his administration is doing so reluctantly and suggested his hands were tied. He called on Congress to change the law to include the island territory.

“This provision is inconsistent with my Administration’s policies and values,” Biden said in a June statement. “However, the Department of Justice has a longstanding practice of defending the constitutionality of federal statutes, regardless of policy preferences.”

Brian Fletcher, a DOJ attorney who argued the case on behalf of the administration, acknowledged a history of discrimination that the federal government has directed toward Puerto Rico, but argued that the law at issue is not a part of that bias.

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“They are US citizens,” Fletcher said of Puerto Rico’s residents, “but there is no evidence here linking this exclusion to ethnicity or a history of discrimination.”

Sotomayor responded, “How do you separate it out? Puerto Ricans are Puerto Ricans, they're Hispanic and they are routinely denied a political voice. They're powerless politically. All you have to do is listen to some of the rhetoric about Puerto Rico. And you know, there has been discrimination shown. Why shouldn't that add to the scrutiny?”

While many of the justices grilled Fletcher about the administration’s defense of excluding Puerto Rico from SSI benefits, they also appeared unsure about how to resolve the case without overreaching and upending the government’s relationship with its territory.

They questioned the attorney challenging the law, Hermann Ferre, who argued that the exclusion violates the Constitution’s equal protection guarantees and that the territory’s residents should be granted the same SSI benefits afforded to residents in a state like Mississippi.

Chief Justice John Roberts wondered aloud if the Supreme Court accepted Ferre’s argument that it might “apply to every federal benefit program” that Puerto Rico is excluded from.

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And Justice Stephen BreyerStephen BreyerOvernight Health Care — Another Texas abortion setback Supreme Court rebuffs abortion providers again over Texas 6-week ban Sotomayor, Gorsuch issue statement denying tensions over masks MORE expressed uncertainty about how to move forward with Ferre’s argument.

“I'm at sea in this one, and I don't know how you do this thing comparing the Mississippi and Puerto Rico and when it is and when it isn't [applicable],” Breyer said.

The case concerns 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. He continued to receive the payments for three years after moving to Puerto Rico in 2013 to be closer to family.

But the law that established SSI, passed in 1972, granted eligibility only to residents of the 50 states or the District of Columbia. The benefit was later extended to those living in the U.S. territory of Northern Mariana Islands, but not Puerto Rico. 

Puerto Rico has its own separate aid program for indigent people who 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.

In 2016, the Social Security Administration learned of Vaello-Madero’s earlier relocation to Puerto Rico. The government discontinued his benefits, applied the cutoff retroactively and sued to recover more than $28,000 in SSI payments that Vaello-Madero received while living in Puerto Rico.

In federal district court, Vaello-Madero countered that the U.S. government’s exclusion of Puerto Rico from the SSI program amounted to illegal discrimination in violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection.

The district court sided with Vaello-Madero. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit agreed, finding the U.S. government lacked a rational basis for the differential treatment of otherwise-eligible SSI recipients living in Puerto Rico, prompting the U.S. to appeal to the Supreme Court. 

A decision in the case, U.S. v. Vaello-Madero, is expected by late June.