The supplemental security income program applies to Guam, a federal judge said in a ruling that struck down as "unconstitutional" a federal statute that discriminates against the territory.
"The court finds that the discriminatory provisions of the SSI statute and any related implementing regulations that discriminate on the basis of status as a resident of Guam violate the Constitution and Organic Act’s guarantees of equal protection," the U.S. District of Guam Chief Judge Frances Tydingco-Gatewood wrote in a decision Friday, ruling in favor of an elderly woman with disabilities.
The case was filed by Katrina Schaller against the U.S. Social Security Administration, which administers the SSI program.
A native of Pennsylvania, Schaller suffers from myotonic dystrophy, a debilitating, degenerative genetic disorder affecting muscle function and mental processing.
When she moved to Guam in 2008, her SSI benefits were terminated. Her twin sister Leslie, who is afflicted with the same condition, has moved back to Pennsylvania, where she receives $755 a month in SSI payments.
"Having considered all the grounds proffered by the United States, the court finds that there is no rational basis for excluding plaintiff from receiving SSI benefits based solely on her residency in Guam," the court said.
The program pays benefits to disabled adults and children who have limited income and resource, and people 65 and older without disabilities who meet the financial limits. Guam's delegate to Congress Mike San Nicolas and his predecessor Madeleine Bordallo have been advocating for the territory's inclusion in the SSI program.
Using the CNMI as a reference, the ruling held that the equal protection guarantees of the Fifth Amendment forbid the arbitrary denial of SSI benefits to residents of Guam.
"There is no relevant difference between Guam and the CNMI that would rationally justify the denial of SSI benefits to otherwise eligible U.S. citizens residing in Guam, benefits enjoyed by their Chamorro neighbors just 60 miles north of and a 40-minute flight from Guam," the court said.
In seeking the dismissal of Schaller's lawsuit, the Social Security Administration argued that Guam does not pay federal tax, hence its exclusion from the SSI program.
The judge, however, pointed to the logical failure of SSA's argument.
"Guam’s tax status is not unique when contrasted with the tax status of the CNMI. The parties do not dispute that neither Guam nor the CNMI pay federal income taxes," Tydingco-Gatewood said. "Yet, the U.S. citizens in the CNMI residents are eligible for SSI benefits that are withheld from U.S. citizens residing in Guam. This proffered reason to justify Guam’s exclusion from the SSI program when the CNMI is included is illogical and irrational."
The court also noted that the payment of SSI benefits to citizens in the CNMI further "supports the finding that it is irrational to conclude that Guam’s economy would be disrupted if it were included in the SSI program."
"Although the defendants maintain that Congress may have rationally concluded that SSI benefits would have disrupted Guam’s economy in the past, the CNMI’s experience of decades of SSI payments and Guam’s own receipt of federal public assistance funds have shown that an influx of federal funds through the SSI program would not disrupt Guam’s economy at this time," the decision reads.
Neil Weare, president and founder of Equally American, said Schaller's twin sister Leslie has filed a companion case in Pennsylvania, wanting to be able to visit her family on Guam for more than 30 days or move to Guam without loss of her benefits.
“This important victory highlights both the arbitrariness and the real-world harms when federal laws discriminate against citizens in U.S. territories simply because of where they live,” Weare said.
Equally American advocates for equality and civil rights for the nearly 4 million Americans living in U.S. territories.
“No American should have to choose between receiving the benefits they need to survive and being able to live near their family support network. It’s refreshing to see a federal judge rule that this kind of discrimination is not just wrong, but unconstitutional,” Weare said.
He said Friday’s ruling adds momentum to a building wave of court decisions ruling that federal laws that discriminate against residents of U.S. territories are unconstitutional.
In April, the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in United States v. Vaello Madero that the SSI law’s exclusion of Puerto Rican residents violated the Constitution, setting up a likely Supreme Court battle between the United States and territorial residents like Katrina Schaller who are denied much-needed SSI benefits simply because of where they happen to live in the United States.