The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 Thursday that it is not unconstitutional to exclude residents of U.S. territories from a federal benefits program that provides aid to the elderly, blind and disabled, a decision that V.I. Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett slammed as “reprehensible.”
The 8-1 vote to uphold the longstanding differential treatment of residents of U.S. overseas territories came five months after the court heard oral arguments in the case brought by José Luis Vaello-Madero of Puerto Rico.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whose parents were born in Puerto Rico, was the lone dissenter. She called the decision “utterly irrational” and “especially cruel” due to Puerto Rico’s widespread poverty. The Census Bureau estimated that in 2019, 43.5 percent of Puerto Rico’s residents lived below the poverty line — more than triple the national percentage of 12.3 percent, she noted.
The U.S. Justice Department sued Vaello-Madero in 2017 to recover $28,081 in Supplemental Security Income benefits it said he continued to receive illegally when he moved from New York State to Puerto Rico in 2013 to be closer to family.
The DOJ lost its case in the District Court of Puerto Rico, and again on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in April 2020, which found that barring residents of the territory from SSI payments violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution. The DOJ appealed to the Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in the case last November.
Had Vaello-Madero prevailed, Puerto Rico stood to gain about $2 billion in SSI funding for its poorest and neediest residents – benefits that could in turn also have extended to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam. Congress voted to grant the Northern Mariana Islands SSI benefits in 1976.
Instead, the citizens of most American overseas territories, including the U.S. Virgin Islands, will have to continue to rely on Aid to the Aged, Blind and Disabled. In Puerto Rico, the program delivered benefits of about $82 a month in 2020, compared to $574 if they were eligible for SSI, according to its Delegate to Congress Jenniffer González-Colón.
“I call on my colleagues in Congress to act quickly to correct this outrageous discrimination that keeps more than 300,000 of our most vulnerable citizens in extreme poverty,” González-Colón said in a statement following Thursday’s decision.
Representing the U.S. Justice Department during November’s oral arguments before the court, Deputy Solicitor General Curtis Gannon said the intent of the 1972 decision by Congress to create SSI for the states and D.C. only was to promote economic and political autonomy in Puerto Rico, and that because its residents don’t pay federal income and some other taxes, it can fund its own safety net programs.
Writing for the court, Justice Brett Kavanaugh echoed that argument. “Puerto Rico’s tax status — in particular, the fact that residents of Puerto Rico are typically exempt from most federal income, gift, estate, and excise taxes — supplies a rational basis for likewise distinguishing residents of Puerto Rico from residents of the States for purposes of the Supplemental Security Income benefits program,” Kavanaugh wrote.
“In devising tax and benefits programs, it is reasonable for Congress to take account of the general balance of benefits to and burdens on the residents of Puerto Rico. In doing so, Congress need not conduct a dollar-to-dollar comparison of how its tax and benefits programs apply in the States as compared to the Territories, either at the individual or collective level,” wrote Kavanaugh, an appointee of former President Donald Trump.
It was Trump’s Justice Department that appealed the case to the Supreme Court, a fight that continued under President Joe Biden’s administration, despite Biden himself voicing support for SSI benefits for the American citizens of U.S. territories. A provision in its Build Back Better proposal would make residents of U.S. territories eligible for SSI payments, but the legislation is stalled in Congress.
“The Supreme Court’s decision to reverse the lower court and the appeals court ruling and side with the discriminatory practice of inequitable treatment of people living in the U.S. territories is reprehensible,” Plaskett said in a statement shortly after the decision was announced Thursday evening.
“Not only did the Justices receive information that the people of the territory fight in all our wars and contribute, but they also received information that we pay significant taxes,” Plaskett said. “I know all my constituents and other people in the territories are extremely disappointed by the decision. Once again, we are reminded of and kept to second-class citizenship and treatment,” she said.
“I am particularly disappointed in the Biden Justice Department for appealing the decision of the federal appeals court that was clearly in favor of SSI being rightfully extended to our U.S. territories,” said Plasket. “Once again, we find ourselves with an administration that does not have the will to fight and overturn the Jim Crow segregationist, racist Insular cases rulings. What possible justification can there be to uphold a ruling that prevents elderly and disabled people from receiving vital support for basic necessities like food and shelter?”
In her dissent, Sotomayor noted that the majority decision is especially cruel in that Puerto Rico, like the U.S. Virgin Islands, has no recourse to address the SSI disparity in Congress.
“Equal treatment of citizens should not be left to the vagaries of the political process. Because residents of Puerto Rico do not have voting representation in Congress, they cannot rely on their elected representatives to remedy the punishing disparities suffered by citizen residents of Puerto Rico under Congress’ unequal treatment,” Sotomayor wrote in her dissent.
“The Constitution permits Congress to ‘make all needful Rules and Regulations’ respecting the Territories. That constitutional command does not permit Congress to ignore the equally weighty constitutional command that it treat United States citizens equally. I respectfully dissent,” the Justice wrote.