The Supreme Court seems divided between Puerto Rico's exit from state benefits

Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked whether the federal government could "choose" what benefits U.S. citizens could achieve based on where they live


The Supreme Court heard arguments over a landmark case on Tuesday to consider whether it is legal to deny state benefits to US citizens who are elderly and disabled living in Puerto Rico, even though they can access them if they live in the country.

The judges appeared to be divided over the issue as they questioned Deputy Attorney-General Curtis Gannon while speaking on behalf of the Department of Justice in favor of excluding Puerto Rican citizens from the benefits of Supplemental Security Income.

These benefits, also known as SSIs, are designed to help people with disabilities, the elderly, and the blind who are struggling financially. They are found in U.S. citizens living in 50 states, the District of Columbia and the Northern Mariana Islands but not those living in other parts of the U.S. Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and American Samoa.

The case is being considered as part of a case involving 67-year-old José Luis Vaello-Madero, a disabled man living in New York from 1985 to 2013, when he moved to Puerto Rico to care for his wife. He had first received SSI benefits in 2012, while in New York, until he was told in 2016 that he was unfit after moving to the island.

A year later, the Social Security Administration filed a lawsuit against her, demanding that she pay back more than $ 28,000 in benefits while living in Puerto Rico.

Gannon relied on three key points to push the court to overturn a decision by the US Supreme Court of Appeal last year which ruled that "it is illegal" to deny SSI benefits to Puerto Rican residents, saying the federal government had failed to establish a valid exclusionary basis. of Puerto Rican citizens from the SSI. ”

One of these points is based on the fact that Puerto Rican people on the island are exempt from many state taxes, including income tax.

Justice Liberal Sonia Sotomayor, a Puerto Rican national, has backed down, saying that Puerto Rican people "pay more taxes, and more inclusive taxes, like other union states."

Puerto Rican people pay corporate taxes and help fund community programs such as Medicare and Social Security, which provide more than $ 4 billion a year in state taxes in the United States.

"It's good to choose one tax, but that's true across the country," Sotomayor said. "So, I do not know if exempting one or two of the taxes would make you less aware of the rationale for government."

A family that has lost benefits because members live in Puerto Rico are turning to the Supreme Court for a hearing

Differences in the taxing of Puerto Rican people on the island in other ways, including the lack of voting representation in Congress and the inability to vote in U.S. presidential elections, among other limitations when it comes to accessing the organisation's security network programs.

Sotomayor added that the SSI program is fully funded by the coalition government, which means that provinces do not incur costs if they make these benefits available to their citizens.

"I do not understand what the various relations with Puerto Rico have to do with this program because there is no cost to the government," he said. "Money goes straight to the people, not to the government."

About 700,000 people living in Puerto Rico would be eligible for SSI benefits if the Supreme Court rejected the Department of Justice's application. That would mean a combined $ 1.8 billion to $ 2.4 billion annually for eligible Puerto Rican citizens for the next ten years, according to the Social Security Administration. About 44 percent of Puerto Rican people live in poverty.

The complaint was first filed by the administration of former Republican President Donald Trump. His Democratic Alliance supporter Joe Biden has continued to apply, although he has promised to ensure that Puerto Rican citizens can benefit from SSI benefits during his presidential campaign, and is urging Congress to extend SSI to Puerto Rico.

During his complaint, Gannon argued that "Congress usually makes different laws" on issues relating to U.S. territories. based on the local clause enshrined in the Constitution.

A series of Supreme Court decisions, known as Insular Cases, have allowed Congress and the federal government to control U.S. territories. as external for domestic and provincial purposes for international purposes, especially when it comes to funding community programs. They were written by a majority of the judges in the Supreme Court who officially authorized racial discrimination under Plessy v. Ferguson.

But Vaello-Madero's case now gives the current Supreme Court, with a majority of 6-3 people, an opportunity to review these decisions.

"Why should we not just admit that Unusual Cases are wrongly determined?" Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch questioned Gannon while pressuring him to disclose the position of Biden executives on charges.

Although Gannon did not defend the thinking and statements of the Insular Cases, he said "the court does not need to say any more about the lower charges in order to determine the case." Instead, he focused on arguing that Congress and the federal government could treat US citizens differently depending on where they live as the constitutional right to equal protection does not include geographical equality.

Congress first decided to exclude Puerto Rico from the SSI system when it was established in 1972. Instead, Puerto Rican people are eligible for a separate government program, called Assistance for the Elderly, the Blind, and the Disabled. To qualify, people cannot earn more than $ 65 a month, compared to $ 750 a month for SSI. Those eligible under the Puerto Rico program receive an average of $ 77 per month, while SSI beneficiaries receive an average of $ 53.