Attorney files friend of court brief in SSI case before US high court
By The Star Staff
Pro-statehood activist and lawyer Gregorio Igartúa has filed a friend of the court brief in support of José Luis Vaello Madero, who has asserted in the U.S. Supreme Court that banning Puerto Rico residents from the federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program is discriminatory.
The Supreme Court has set arguments for Nov. 9 to hear the United States v. Jose Luis Vaello-Madero. Under the litigation, the U.S. government sought to claw back $28,081 in SSI payments that Vaello Madero had received from the program over a three-year period after he moved back to Puerto Rico from New York in 2013. The case was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court last year by the U.S. Department of Justice after a U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled that exclusion of otherwise eligible Americans from SSI based on their residence in Puerto Rico violates the U.S. Constitution.
After 123 years, Igartúa said, the United States continues to treat Puerto Rico’s U.S. citizens as if they are still residents of a non-incorporated U.S. territory.
“In opposition, Amicus Brief Supports that Puerto Rico is an Incorporated Territory of the United States, as established in Consejo de Salud de Playa de Ponce v Rullan 586 FS 2nd 22 (2008), and as supported henceforth by other authorities,” the attorney said. “Petitioner’s stance in this civil action constitutes a discriminatory practice that affects the legal rights of Respondent and of the 3.4 American Citizens [who are] residents of Puerto Rico, which has serious social, economic, political, and legal consequences for them.”
Igartúa told the high court that the incorporation issue is at the heart of the case and, thus, must be properly disposed of.
Vaello Madero contends he is not required to return the payments he received in SSI disability benefits upon changing his domicile to Puerto Rico, since excluding a United States citizen residing in the territory from receiving those payments runs afoul of the equal protection guarantees of the Due Process Clause. In turn, the United States posits that limiting SSI eligibility to residents of the fifty states and the District of Columbia is constitutionally permissible.
The U.S. government argues that it can treat Puerto Rico residents differently because the island does not pay federal taxes, but Igartúa argued that even if Puerto Rico were a state, less than half of the citizens will have to pay such taxes because the island is poor.
“Who is benefiting from this federal income tax exemption? Corporations based in the 50 States which have saved billions of dollars in federal taxes by operating in Puerto Rico; millionaires who are moving to Puerto Rico to avoid paying federal taxes,” he argued. “The U.S. Department of Justice pretends that Congress deprives the poor in Puerto Rico from parity in federal aid programs to offset the losses in revenue from the exemption given to billionaire corporations and to millionaire individuals.”
Igartúa said that no other U.S. territory has been more assimilated than Puerto Rico to resemble a state.
“The degree of incorporation of Puerto Rico to be like a state can be considered by implication as strong as to exclude any other view than that it is an incorporated territory of the United States,” he said. “… Allowing a United States citizen in Puerto Rico who is poor and disabled to be denied SSI disability payments creates an impermissible second class citizenship akin to that premised on race, and amounts to Congress switching ‘on and off’ the Constitution discriminatorily.”