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Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress can exclude Puerto Rican residents from federal safety net programs that provide direct payments to the poor, disabled, and blind.
The case came to the Supreme Court by challenge brought forth by Jose Luis Vaello Madero. Madero was born in Puerto Rico and moved to New York in the 1980s. In 2012 Madero suffered a serious illness and began receiving Supplemental Security Income payments. He moved back to Puerto Rico and continued to receive SSI payments for four years. When Social Security Administration became aware that he had moved out of the United States his benefits were cut off and a lawsuit was filed to recover the $28,000 he received after moving back to Puerto Rico.
The argument Madero claimed was excluding citizens who live in Puerto Rico violated the constitution’s guarantee of equal protection of the law. He won in two lower courts but the Supreme Court reversed those rulings Thursday.
The vote was 8 to 1 with Justice Sonia Sotomayor as the lone dissenter. Both of Sotomayor’s parents were born in Puerto Rico.
The majority decision, written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, highlighted the previous high court rulings that upheld the differential tax treatments of Puerto Rican residents. The island residents are exempt from most federal taxes, including income tax. Kavanaugh wrote, that Congress had a “rational basis” for excluding them from eligibility for SSI payments.
In the decision, Kavanaugh wrote, “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.”
“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.”
Sotomayor proclaimed in her dissent that if Congress can exclude citizens from safety net programs on a basis of not paying sufficient taxes, residents of Vermont, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, and Alaska could also be excluded.
Sotomayor also wrote, “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”.