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Supreme Court rules Congress can exclude US territories from federal disability program

Updated: Apr 22, 2022

By Mar-Vic Cagurangan

Congress can exclude residents of Puerto Rico from some federal disability benefits available to those who live in the 50 states, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in an 8-1 decision that upheld precedent cases related to the ambiguous status of U.S. territories.

"Congress sometimes legislates differently with respect to the territories, including Puerto Rico, than it does with respect to the states," Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in the United States v. Vaeillo Madero case involving the Supplemental Security Income program.

The Supreme Court's decision on the Puerto Rico case extends to Guam, where a similar case filed by local resident Katrina Schaller is on pause at the Ninth Circuit Court.

The decision also applies to the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa, but not to the Northern Marianas where eligible residents receive SSI benefits.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor penned the sole dissenting opinion. "Equal treatment of citizens should not be left to the vagaries of the political process," she said. "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," wrote Sotomayor, whose parents were born in Puerto Rico,

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"The question presented is whether the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause requires Congress to make Supplemental Security Income benefits available to residents of Puerto Rico to the same extent that Congress makes those benefits available to residents of the states,' Kavanaugh wrote.

"In light of the text of the Constitution, longstanding historical practice, and this court’s precedents, the answer is no."

The Supreme Court pointed out that Congress has long determined that federal tax and benefits programs for residents of territories differ in some respects from the federal tax and benefits programs for residents of the 50 states.

Kavanaugh noted that residents of U.S. territories are typically exempt from most federal income, gift, estate and excise taxes, but that they are eligible for Social Security and Medicare.

"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," Kavanaugh wrote.

The SSI program provides benefits for, among others, those who are age 65 or older and cannot financially support themselves.

"To be eligible for Supplemental Security Income, an individual must be a “resident of the United States,” which the statute defines as the 50 states and the District of Columbia," Kavanaugh wrote. "A later statute included residents of the Northern Mariana Islands in the program."

The dispute stemmed from SSI claims received by Puerto Rico resident Jose Luis Vaello Madero, who moved from New York to Puerto Rico in 2013. The U.S. government sued Madeo claiming an overpayment totaling more than $28,000, to which the lawsuit said he was not entitled.

"In tackling the many facets of territorial governance, Congress must make numerous policy judgments that account not only for the needs of the United States as a whole but also for (among other things) the unique histories, economic conditions, social circumstances, independent policy views, and relative autonomy of the individual territories," the decision reads.

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