In United States v. Vaello Madero, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a person living in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, was ineligible for Supplemental Security Income, the Congress having the ability to treat territories differently from the 50 states.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh writing for the court explained: “Of relevance here, Congress must decide how to structure federal taxes and benefits for residents of the territories. In doing so, Congress has long maintained federal tax and benefits programs for residents of Puerto Rico and the other territories that differ in some respects from the federal tax and benefits programs for residents of the 50 states.
“The Constitution affords Congress substantial discretion over how to structure federal tax and benefits programs for residents of the territories. Exercising that discretion, Congress may extend Supplemental Security Income benefits to residents of Puerto Rico.
Indeed, the solicitor general has informed the court that the President supports such legislation as a matter of policy. But the limited question before this court is whether, under the Constitution, Congress must extend Supplemental Security Income to residents of Puerto Rico to the same extent as to residents of the states. The answer is no. We, therefore, reverse the judgment of the U. S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.”
Justice Kavanaugh also explained the potential pitfall that could befall the territories if benefits like SSI were extended to the territories. “If this court were to require identical treatment on the benefits side, residents of the states could presumably insist that federal taxes be imposed on residents of Puerto Rico and other territories in the same way that those taxes are imposed on residents of the states.”
The Supreme Court didn’t say people who live in the territories can never get SSI. The court said it’s Congress’s call. Negotiators for the Northern Marianas were able to cut a deal with the U.S. government to make residents eligible for SSI.
Our delegate was able to secure a congressional commitment to reimburse GovGuam for earned income tax credit payouts even though our government only makes those payouts pursuant to local, not federal, law.
PL 24-61 reads in pertinent part: “The Guam Earned Income program shall be instituted using the same income levels as are used in the federal ‘Earned Income Tax Credit’ law to compute a subsidy which will be paid to residents of Guam who file income tax returns with the Department of Revenue and Taxation.”
President Biden supports SSI for the territories. Negotiators for our neighbors to the north got it. If Guam residents who meet eligibility requirements don’t get SSI, it won’t be the Supreme Court that “screwed them out of it.”
Abandoning the fool’s errand to seek the Supreme Court’s overruling of the Insular Cases would be a good place to start. In my December 2021 column, titled “The Doctrine Is on Our Side,” I opined that the Insular Cases are our best friend.
The “Barnes 8,” led by Vice Speaker Tina Rose Muña Barnes, championed a resolution requesting that the House Natural Resources Committee chaired by Rep. Raúl Grijalva reject the Insular Cases. This resolution was, at best, a waste of time and probably was counterproductive to any effort to secure SSI for the disabled living on Guam.
Grijalva’s committee has jurisdiction to start an SSI bill on its journey through Congress. A resolution requesting the good offices of Grijalva to champion an SSI bill would have been far more effective than Resolution 56’s rant based on misquotations, half-truths, misconceptions and demagoguery.
No, it isn’t the Supreme Court that’s screwing us out of SSI.
Robert “Bob” Klitzkie is a former senator and Superior Court of Guam judge pro tem. He hosts the talk show, “Tall Tales,” on KUSG-FM (93.3 FM) weekday afternoons from 4 to 6 p.m. Send feedback to email@example.com.