Thursday's 8-1 verdict by the court found that Puerto Ricans were not ineligible to receive Supplemental Security Income, which pays benefits for older, disabled, and blind Americans. This was not a violation of the Constitution.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor was born in Puerto Rico and was the sole dissenter.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote for the court that the court was bound to a pair earlier rulings, which had already upheld the federal law creating SSI and exempted Puerto Rico and other U.S. territory from it. Later, Congress added the Mariana Islands.
Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory that has existed since 1898 during the Spanish American War. Its residents are U.S. citizens. They are allowed to vote in the primaries but not in the presidential election. Many do not have to pay federal income taxes.
Kavanaugh stated that, "just like not all federal taxes extend to Puerto Rico residents, so too does not every federal benefit program extend to Puerto Rico residents."
Sotomayor replied in dissent that there was no reason for Congress to treat all needy citizens of the United States differently. The Court's decision to hold otherwise is irrational, and it goes against the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection for citizens and the nature of the SSI program. Respectfully, I disapprove.
Many in Puerto Rico were outraged by the decision, including Governor. Pedro Pierluisi said that statehood was the only way to end Puerto Rico's second-class status.
He said that "The decision... once more confirms that Puerto Rico's territorial status is discriminatory for the island’s U.S citizens and allows Congress the freedom to do what it wishes with us."
Pierluisi pointed out that Puerto Rico is also treated inequitably when it comes to Medicaid, Medicare, and other federal programs.
Jenniffer González, Puerto Rico's representative to Congress, is a member Pierluisi’s pro-statehood party. She called the exclusion "unbelievable discrimination" which keeps over 300,000.
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.
The Justice Department filed its appeal to a ruling of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals under the Trump administration, but continued the case after President Joe Biden was elected.
Biden's administration stated that it supports the extension of SSI payments for Puerto Rico. It contained a provision in the Build Back Better proposal that would make residents of U.S. territory eligible for SSI payments. However, Congress has stalled the legislation.
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.