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Supreme Court rules Puerto Ricans do not have constitutional right to certain federal benefits


The 8-1 opinion was written by Judge Brett Kavanaugh, with Judge Sonia Sotomayor dissenting.

The case involved the Supplemental Security Income available to people living in all 50 states who are over the age of 65, blind or disabled. But residents of Puerto Rico and other US territories are excluded from receiving funds.

“In developing tax and benefit programs, it is reasonable for Congress to consider the overall balance of benefits and burdens for residents of Puerto Rico,” Kavanaugh wrote. “In doing so, Congress need not compare dollar to dollar how its tax and benefit programs operate in the United States versus the territories, either individually or collectively. .”

He noted that residents of Puerto Rico are generally exempt from most federal income, gift, estate, and excise taxes, but are eligible for Social Security and Medicare. sickness. Kavanaugh said that “just as not all federal taxes extend to residents of Puerto Rico, neither do all federal benefit programs extend to residents of Puerto Rico.”

Sotomayor, whose parents were born in Puerto Rico, wrote the only dissenting opinion. “Equal treatment of citizens should not be left to the vagaries of the political process,” she said.

“Because residents of Puerto Rico have no electoral representation in Congress, they cannot rely on their elected representatives to address the punitive disparities suffered by resident citizens of Puerto Rico under the unequal treatment of Congress,” wrote Sotomayor.

Steve Vladeck, a CNN Supreme Court analyst and professor at the University of Texas School of Law, called the case “a big deal both for what it contains and for what it opens the door to.” door”.

“The basic principle is that Congress is authorized to deny certain federal benefits to Americans who live in territories like Puerto Rico as long as it has a rational basis for doing so, and no special justification is required,” Vladeck said. “It makes it much easier for Congress, a body in which the territories are not represented, to treat residents of those territories differently than those who live in the states – not just for Supplemental Security Income, but for all Federal benefit programs, such as Social Security, Medicare, and other entitlements are funded at least in part by taxes paid by people living in these territories.”

The case involved Jose Luis Vaello-Madero, who was born in Puerto Rico in 1954 but lived in New York from 1985 to 2013. In 2012, he was declared eligible after a stroke to receive disability benefits, which were were deposited directly into his cheque. Account.

After returning to Puerto Rico in 2013, Vaello-Madero continued to accept payments until the government was informed that he was now living outside the 50 states. He was told that his benefits would be cut and that he owed the government $28,081 in back pay. His lawyers then filed a lawsuit, arguing that the exclusion of Puerto Rican residents violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment.

Hermann Ferré, a lawyer for Vaello-Madero, said the program aims to replace “an uneven patchwork of programs” for people with disabilities with a “uniform standard of national support” so that poor and disabled Americans can live with dignity.

“But that guarantee doesn’t benefit all Americans,” he said, saying the court should view the elimination with suspicion because it excludes Puerto Ricans because of their race.

The Biden administration had defended the exclusion, noting that most Puerto Ricans are exempt from federal taxes, so Congress could take this reduced contribution into consideration when excluding them from certain disability benefits. A government lawyer stressed that it would be up to Congress to expand the benefits, and President Joe Biden has already called on Congress to do so.

“It is always appropriate for Congress to consider the overall balance of benefits and burdens associated with a particular federal program,” Deputy Solicitor General Curtis Gannon told the justices during oral argument.

But Sotomayor, who still has family members on the island, strongly criticized the government’s argument and called the majority’s decision “irrational”.

She said Congress was wrong to exclude Puerto Rican residents from what she called a “significant safety net program.”

“There is no rational basis for Congress to treat needy citizens living anywhere in the United States so differently from others,” she said, and noted that the Government Accountability Office believes more than 300,000 residents of Puerto Rico would have been eligible for this benefit.

Sotomayor acknowledged that under the principles of equal protection, the government can draw lines when classifying people, but it cannot “base these qualifications on impermissible criteria or use them arbitrarily to impose a burden on a group. particular of individuals”.

She said that while Puerto Rican residents are generally exempt from paying certain federal taxes, that does not create a rational basis for distinguishing Puerto Rican residents from others in this case. That’s partly, she insisted, because those who receive Supplemental Security Income pay little or no tax. She said residents of Puerto Rico are like other citizens eligible for the benefit: “They are needy American citizens living in the United States.

She also warned of the “dramatic repercussions” of the decision. She said if Congress had the ability to exclude citizens from safety net programs because they reside in jurisdictions that do not pay enough taxes, it could easily target needy residents of other states like Vermont, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana and Alaska. on the basis that “residents of these states pay less to the federal treasury than residents of other states”.

This story was updated with additional details on Thursday.

CNN’s Devan Cole contributed to this report.


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