• The San Juan Daily Star

Dozens of groups, island gov’t file friend of the court briefs in SSI case

Dozens of civic organizations and unions, along with the commonwealth government, have filed friend of the court briefs asking the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold a lower court ruling that declared the exclusion of Puerto Rico residents from Supplemental Security Income benefits to be illegal.

By The Star Staff

Dozens of civic organizations and unions as well as the commonwealth government have filed friend of the court briefs asking the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold a lower court ruling that declared as illegal the exclusion of Puerto Rico residents from Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits.

The friend of the court briefs were filed last week in the case United States v. Jose Luis Vaello-Madero, in which the U.S. government is seeking to claw back $28,081 in SSI payments that Vaello-Madero 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 in 2020 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.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), an international labor union with two million members in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO (AFSCME), another labor group that is represented locally by the Servidores Públicos Unidos de Puerto Rico; the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO (AFT); and the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) submitted a brief on behalf of both their members who currently live in Puerto Rico and their members within the 50 states who cannot return to the island without forfeiting SSI benefits.

“Amici [friends of the court] submit this brief to respond in particular to the United States’ inaccurate and patronizing claims that denying SSI benefits to needy Puerto Ricans furthers the island’s fiscal ‘autonomy,’ is justified by the island’s ability to allocate its own tax revenue to provide benefits instead, and serves the purpose of avoiding disruption to the island’s economy,” the groups said. “None of these claims is true, and none provides a rational basis for denying SSI benefits to Puerto Rico’s residents.”

First, the organizations said, Puerto Rico is a de facto colony, notwithstanding the United States’ platitudes about “mutual respect,” and any fiscal autonomy the island once maintained was stripped by enactment of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, commonly known as PROMESA, which created an unelected, presidentially appointed oversight board with authority to dictate Puerto Rico’s fiscal policy.

Puerto Rico no longer controls its own budget or spending, negating one of the United States’ principal arguments, they argued. Second, nothing about Puerto Rico’s tax status justifies continued SSI discrimination. Puerto Ricans pay more than $4 billion annually in federal taxes, and data show that more than one-third of all U.S. states and the District of Columbia receive a higher net federal outflow per capita.

“To the extent that the United States equates disruption with economic harm, the truth is that extending SSI benefits to Puerto Ricans will only improve the island’s economy,” the groups said. “Indeed, ending SSI discrimination might go at least some small way toward remedying the various economic disasters caused in Puerto Rico by failed United States interventions of the past.”

The AARP, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to empowering Americans 50 and older to choose how they live as they age, Justice in Aging, and the National Organization of Social Security Claimants, among others noted that Congress created SSI to establish a national program to provide supplemental security income to individuals who have reached age 65 or are blind or disabled.

“SSI beneficiaries have limited resources and depend on SSI for their survival. SSI is a program of last resort,” they said. “Puerto Rico residents’ need for SSI is particularly acute given the island’s high disability and poverty rates. Classifying a group of the nation’s poor and medically needy as ‘second tier’ simply because they reside in Puerto Rico is not rational and serves no rational purpose. The categorical exclusion of Puerto Rico’s impoverished older residents from SSI is particularly harmful given the island’s lack of long-term care service benefits under Medicaid.”

The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, meanwhile, also filed a friend of the court brief, noting that U.S. citizens on the island enjoy far lesser rights than other U.S. citizens merely because of Puerto Rico’s status as an unincorporated territory.

“This inferiority is both unconstitutional and unacceptable,” the island government said. “The public policy of the Government of Puerto Rico is that Puerto Ricans attain the same rights as those enjoyed by their fellow United States citizens living in the States, and that United States citizens who move to Puerto Rico enjoy the same constitutional rights as those who reside in the States.”

The government asked for a repeal of the Insular Cases, a 20th century group of cases that justified treating the territories differently from the states and asked the top court to use strict scrutiny and not rational review, as the First Circuit used. Strict scrutiny is a form of judicial review that courts use to determine the constitutionality of certain laws. Strict scrutiny is often used by courts when a plaintiff sues the government for discrimination. To pass strict scrutiny, the legislating body must have passed the law to further a “compelling governmental interest,” and must have narrowly tailored the law to achieve that interest. Rational review is used when there is no discrimination.

“The classification established by Congress, excluding Puerto Rico residents from the SSI program, is in reality based on race and/or national origin; thus, the proper Equal Protection analysis is strict scrutiny and not rational-basis review,” the government said. “The decision of Congress to exclude Puerto Rico residents from the SSI program is grounded upon the plenary power granted to Congress over territories of the United States by the Territorial Clause of the Constitution, and the interpretation that this Court has given to that clause with respect to Puerto Rico. This interpretation, commonly known as the ‘incorporation doctrine,’ is a major cause of the gross inferiority suffered by Puerto Rican United States citizens who live in Puerto Rico and is an essential part of this case.”

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