WASHINGTON – The immediate question for Supreme Court justices during a debate on Tuesday was whether Congress was free to exclude residents of Puerto Rico from a social security program that provides monthly cash payments to people elderly, blind and disabled who cannot support themselves.
Above this question looms the larger question of Puerto Rico’s status as a territory, and not as a state. Its residents are U.S. citizens but cannot vote in federal elections and generally do not pay federal income taxes. Much of the argument revolved around the implications of these facts for treating Social Security benefit recipients differently depending on where they live.
The benefits, called Supplemental Security Income, are available to U.S. citizens in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the Northern Mariana Islands, but not in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Guam.
Judge Sonia Sotomayor, whose parents were from Puerto Rico, said it was fundamentally unfair.
“Puerto Ricans are citizens and the Constitution applies to them,” she said. “Their people in need are treated differently from people in need in all 50 states. “
The case, United States v. Vaello-Madero, # 20-303, concerned Jose Luis Vaello-Madero, a disabled man who received the benefits when he lived in New York and continued to receive them after moving to Puerto Rico in 2013 When the Administration of the Social Security became aware of the move, she demanded reimbursement of the benefits Mr. Vaello-Madero had received since then, ultimately suing him for around $ 28,000.
Mr Vaello-Madero said the law violated his right to equal protection, winning in lower courts.
President Biden said in June that the exclusion of Puerto Rico from the program was “incompatible with the policies and values of my administration” and called on Congress to resolve the matter.
On Tuesday, however, the Justice Department defended the law in the Supreme Court.
Curtis E. Gannon, a federal government attorney, said Congress made a rational choice in excluding Puerto Rico given its residents’ blanket exemption from paying federal income tax.
Hermann Ferré, lawyer for Mr. Vaello-Madero, said there should be uniform standards for government benefits and noted that residents of Puerto Rico lack political power.
He asked the court to overturn a series of early 20th-century decisions known as the Island Affairs, which ruled that territories acquired by the United States were not automatically entitled to all of the protections of the United States. Constitution.