• The San Juan Daily Star

Friend-of-court filers list grows longer in Vaello Madero SSI case before US high court

By The Star Staff

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments Nov. 8 in the case United States of America v. Vaello-Madero, which centers on whether Congress violates Puerto Rico residents’ equal protection rights by excluding them from the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program.

Already dozens of organizations such as the American Bar Association, American Civil Liberties Union, Interamerican Institute for Constitutional Rights, Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, AARP Foundation, Justice in Aging, National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives, University of Puerto Rico, National Disability Rights Network, the District of Columbia, Guam, and 16 other states and territories, as well as Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia and pro-statehood lawyer Gregorio Igartúa, among others, have filed friend of the court briefs urging the court to uphold that residents of Puerto Rico, and residents of all federal U.S. territories, are entitled to equal protection under the U.S. Constitution.

The case Vaello-Madero case involves the SSI program, which offers benefits to seniors, blind or visually impaired people, and people with disabilities who are residents of the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. Congress, however, has declined to extend the SSI benefits to Puerto Rico residents despite the fact that residents of Puerto Rico, like those of Guam, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands are entitled to equal protection under the laws of the United States.

Under the litigation, the U.S. government seeks 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 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 amicus brief filed by the different organizations argues that Puerto Rico residents should be entitled to enjoy the full protections of the U.S. Constitution, and that by denying SSI benefits to residents of the territories, Congress disfavors a group that lacks voting representation in Congress, has historically faced marginalization and disenfranchisement, and overwhelmingly consists of people of color — leaving this group without equal protection under the law.

“Puerto Rico residents are entitled to equal protection under the U.S. Constitution, but by excluding them from this program, Congress unconstitutionally discriminates against them,” said Adriel I. Cepeda Derieux, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Voting Rights Project, in a statement. “Everyone in the U.S. and the territories should have the same access to the benefits they’re entitled to. Puerto Rico residents, who are disproportionately people of color, cannot vote to remedy their arbitrary and flawed exclusion from this law, and this unequal treatment must end.”

The groups support the lower court’s analysis and contend that the Constitution’s protection of individual rights and limitations on government should apply fully to all federal territories, including Puerto Rico.

Joanna Wasik, supervisory counsel for the Washington Lawyers’ Committee, said this “is yet another example of the racialized treatment of the residents of Puerto Rico and their treatment under federal law as second class citizens.”

“There is, and can be no basis for this discrimination,” she said.

Neil Weare, president of Equally American, said denying some of the most vulnerable citizens critical federal benefits based solely on where they happen to live isn’t just wrong, it’s unconstitutional.

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