WASHINGTON, -- Tuesday's Supreme Court decision was hesitant for a Puerto Rican resident who claimed it is unconstitutional to be excluded form a welfare program that is available in all 50 US states and the District of Columbia.
Although the justices acknowledged that Puerto Ricans may be treated differently, many suggested that Congress should act, and not the courts.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh stated that there are compelling policy arguments for including Puerto Rico into the Supplemental Security income program. This program provides benefits for older, disabled, and blind Americans. Kavanaugh stated that the court had to face a Constitution provision that allows Congress to treat states and territories differently. Since 1898, the Caribbean island has been an American territory.
Jose Luis Vaello-Madero is the Puerto Rico resident in the middle of the case. He began receiving SSI benefits after he had a series of strokes while living and working in New York.
Even after he returned to Puerto Rico, the payments were continued to his New York bank account. After he informed the Social Security Administration, the payments were stopped. The government then sued him to recover $28,000 more.
Lower courts sided in Vaello-Madero and ruled that Puerto Rico's exclusion from the SSI program was unconstitutional. A federal judge ruled that Guam residents should also be eligible for SSI in a similar case.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor was born in Puerto Rico and she was the strongest voice for Vaello-Madero. Sotomayor stated that it was absurd to judge poor Americans differently depending on their location.
The Justice Department appealed the ruling of the 1st U.S. in its first attempt to challenge it. Circuit Court of Appeals under the Trump administration. The case was maintained by the Circuit Court of Appeals even after President Joe Biden assumed office.
Biden's administration stated that it supports the legislation to extend SSI payments Puerto Rico. The House of Representatives proposed the Build Back Better bill that would allow residents of U.S. territory to be eligible for SSI payments.
Curtis Gannon, Justice Department lawyer, stated that a pair 40-year-old Supreme Court cases had already upheld federal law that created SSI. It excluded Puerto Rico and other U.S. territory from it. Later, Congress added the Mariana Islands.
Vaello-Madero's representative Herman Ferre said that Puerto Rico was left without a seat at the table by a number of court decisions, known as the Insular Cases, dating back to 1901.
The island's residents are not eligible to vote or represent them in Congress. They do not also pay federal income taxes
Justice Neil Gorsuch stated that the high court should officially renounce Insular Cases. These cases included racist and xenophobic rhetoric regarding Puerto Ricans. Gorsuch asked, "Why don't we just admit that the Insular Cases were wrongly decided?"
A case in the 1st Circuit is pending that could allow Puerto Rico to receive other federal welfare benefits.
The Aid to the Aged, Blind and Disabled program covers residents of the territories, but has stricter eligibility requirements and provides less generous benefits than SSI.