US Supreme Court to weigh SSI for Puerto Rico

By The Star Staff

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to review a U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals ruling declaring that the U.S. Congress’ decision not to extend the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program to Puerto Rico violates the Equal Protection Clause.

The Supreme Court’s decision comes after the top court distributed the case six times since November for conference to determine whether to grant the petition. The case United States vs Jose Luis Vaello Madero deals with an SSI disability recipient who continued to receive the payments after he moved to Puerto Rico from New York in 2013. The U.S. government asked Vaello Madero to return $28,081 in payments received over a three-year period after he returned to Puerto Rico arguing he was no longer entitled to the benefits after moving to the island.

Both the U.S. District Court and First Circuit judges had ruled that the exclusion of residents of Puerto Rico from the SSI program is “not rationally related to a legitimate government interest.” In its decision, the First Circuit, employing the rational-basis standard of review, determined that the exclusion of people residing in Puerto Rico from the SSI program violates their right to equal protection of the law under the Fifth Amendment.

The U.S. Justice Department asked the Supreme Court on Sept. 4, 2020 to overturn the ruling in a summary judgment, citing court precedents that allow Congress to treat the U.S. territory differently from states in the receipt of federal funds.

Attorneys for Vaello Madero said in November that the lower courts did not break new ground. In striking down the categorical exclusion of Puerto Rico residents from SSI on equal protection grounds, they said, the lower courts ended a 48-year history of “unjust discrimination against some of the nation’s poorest disabled Americans whose only disqualifying characteristic was their place of residence (or place of origin).”

“That discrimination was the product of a 120-year-old congressional practice of segregating the United States into so-called ‘incorporated’ and ‘unincorporated’ territories based on demoded beliefs about the racial and ethnic composition of their populations,” they said.

On Nov. 24, the Justice Department replied that while Vaello Madero says the appeals court ruling complies with Supreme Court precedents, in reality it contradicts the court’s previous decisions in Califano v. Torres from 1978 and Harris v. Rosario from 1980. Those two cases support the idea that Congress may treat Puerto Rico differently from states for purposes of a welfare program if there is a rational basis for the distinction.

That is because Puerto Rican residents do not contribute to the federal treasury, the cost of treating Puerto Rico as a state under the statute would be high, and greater benefits could disrupt the Puerto Rican economy, the Justice Department argued.

For her part, Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González Colón said that on Jan. 20 of this year she had asked President Joseph Biden to withdraw the government’s petition for certiorari in the Vaello Madero case and to allow the decision declaring the exclusion of the Americans living in Puerto Rico from the SSI program as unconstitutional to become final.

“This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the First Circuit’s decision to extend the SSI program to Puerto Rico,” the resident commissioner said in written remarks. “Once again, I urge President Biden to do the right thing and withdraw the case. The exclusion of the Americans living in Puerto Rico from the SSI program, and other federal entitlement programs, is unfair and unjustified, which hurts the most vulnerable of our citizens that we, as a nation, are called to protect.”

On Jan. 28, González Colón introduced House Resolution (HR) 537, the Supplemental Security Act, to extend the SSI program to the territories.

“The vulnerable Americans living in the territories are no less deserving of our help than those vulnerable Americans living in the States and D.C.,” she said. “I ask my colleagues in Congress to do right and pass HR 537. It is a matter of justice and fairness; it is a matter of who we are as Americans.”

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