WASHINGTON (AP) – On Tuesday, the Supreme Court appeared to be reluctant to rule in favor of the Puerto Rican resident who argues that the social security exemption, available in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, is unconstitutional.
The judges acknowledged that differential treatment of Puerto Ricans could be problematic, but some suggested that Congress should act, not the courts.
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Judge Brett Cavanaugh said there are “strong political arguments” for including Puerto Rico in the Supplemental Income Income program, which provides benefits to the elderly, disabled and blind Americans. But Cavanaugh said the court had to grapple with a constitutional provision that allows Congress to treat territories and states differently. The Caribbean island has been US territory since the Spanish-American War of 1898.
Jose Luis Waello-Madero, the Puerto Rican resident at the center of the case, began receiving SSI payments after he suffered a series of strokes while living in New York.
Payments continued to his New York bank account even after he returned to Puerto Rico. When he notified the Social Security Administration, the payments stopped, and then the government sued for more than $ 28,000, which he said he was not entitled to.
The lower courts sided with Waello Madero, ruling that the exclusion of Puerto Rico from the SSI program was unconstitutional. In a similar case in Guam, a federal judge recently ruled that residents of this Pacific island should also be able to receive SSI.
Judge Sonia Sotomayor, whose parents were born in Puerto Rico, was the clearest voice in favor of Waello Madero. Sotomayor said it is irrational to treat poor Americans differently depending on where they live.
“Those in need are in need, whether in Puerto Rico or on the mainland,” Sotomayor said.
The Justice Department first appealed the ruling of the 1st U.S. District Court of Appeals during the Trump administration, but backed the case even after President Joe Biden took office.
The Biden administration has said it supports changing the law to extend SSI payments to Puerto Rico. The Build Back Better bill in the House of Representatives will give residents of the US Territories the right to SSI payments.
Justice Department attorney Curtis Gannon said a couple of Supreme Court decisions from 40 years ago already uphold federal law that created SSI and excluded Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories. Later, Congress added the Mariana Islands.
Herman Ferre, representing Waello-Madero, said a series of court decisions dating back to 1901 known as the “Island Cases” left Puerto Rico without “a full seat at the table.”
The inhabitants of the island do not have the right to vote for the presidency or representation in Congress. They also do not pay federal income tax.
Judge Neil Gorsuch said the High Court should formally reject island nation cases that included racist and xenophobic rhetoric against Puerto Ricans. “Why don’t we just admit that the decision in Insular’s cases was wrong?” – asked Gorsuch.
Another pending case in the first district could extend other federal benefits to Puerto Rico.
A separate program, Assistance for the Elderly, Blind, and Disabled, covers residents of the territories, but it has stricter eligibility requirements and pays less generous benefits than SSI.