• The San Juan Daily Star

US Supreme Court hears arguments in SSI exclusion case

US Supreme Court Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh

By The Star Staff

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday on whether it is legal to exclude Puerto Ricans from the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, which provides benefits to disabled low-income individuals.

The nine justices asked numerous questions of lawyers from the U.S. government, who had appealed a U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that excluding Puerto Rico from the program violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

U.S. v Vaello-Madero is based on a complaint filed by José Luis Vaello Madero, a resident of Puerto Rico who previously lived in New York and received SSI benefits until he moved to Puerto Rico. The U.S. government then stopped the benefits after he moved, and sued Vaello Madero to recover more than $20,000.

The controversy in the case is over whether citizenship rights should be dependent on the geography of where a person lives in the United States.

In February 2019, the First Circuit affirmed a 2018 ruling by the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico that the exclusion of Puerto Rico from SSI was unconstitutional. In September 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice appealed.

SSI benefits are available to U.S. citizens living in any of the 50 states, Washington, D.C., and the Northern Mariana Islands, but not the territories of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam.

If Vaello Madero wins, Puerto Rico residents could become eligible for SSI benefits at an estimated $2 billion annual cost. A provision extending SSI benefits to Puerto Rico is being considered as part of Democratic-backed social spending bill.

Vaello-Madero also gives justices the chance to revisit the so-called Insular Cases from the early 20th century, which said people living in the newly acquired territories can be treated differently.

“Why shouldn’t we just admit that the Insular Cases were incorrectly decided?” Justice Neil Gorsuch asked.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whose parents were from Puerto Rico, mentioned the history of Puerto Ricans being treated as second-class U.S. citizens.

“Puerto Ricans are citizens and the Constitution applies to them,” Sotomayor said. “Their needy people are being treated differently than the needy people in the 50 states.”

The federal government argued that Puerto Rico’s unique tax status and resulting fiscal autonomy provide a rational basis for the decision not to extend the SSI program to its residents. Residents of the island are exempt from a broad range of federal taxes, including federal income taxes, saving $2 billion a year, the agency said.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett wondered about the repercussions of extending SSI benefits. She noted that if there was equal treatment across the board for Puerto Rico residents, then questions should be raised as to whether Puerto Rico residents should pay federal income taxes.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh said that while Vaello Madero’s lawyer made compelling arguments, the U.S. Constitution specifically allows Congress to treat U.S. territories differently than states.

Kavanaugh said it is not the court’s role to change the Constitution.

Meanwhile, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González Colón said Tuesday that the hearing in the U.S. Supreme Court on Vaello-Madero “highlights the deficit of civil and political rights of American citizens within the jurisdiction of the United States itself.”

“The most vulnerable population: the elderly in extreme poverty, the blind, people with disabilities and children with terminal illness, bear the burden of this discrimination caused by the territorial condition of Puerto Rico,” González Colón said in a written statement.

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