Supreme Court backs Congress on Puerto Rico resident benefits

Lower courts had ruled that different treatment under a national program violates the rights of U.S. citizens in the territory

The Supreme Court building is seen at sunset in Washington. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
The Supreme Court building is seen at sunset in Washington. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 21, 2022 at 12:33pm

Corrected April 22 | The Supreme Court denied an effort Thursday to require certain Social Security benefits also go to Puerto Rico residents, in an opinion that points to Congress’ broad constitutional power over the country’s territories.

The 8-1 decision keeps Puerto Rico residents from receiving Supplemental Security Income for aged, blind and disabled individuals, under a 1972 law that made U.S. residents eligible for the program but not residents of the territory.

Lower courts had ruled that different treatment under a national program violates the rights of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico. A decision allowing the benefit would have cost an estimated $23 billion over the next decade.

But the Supreme Court decided that Congress has “substantial discretion” to structure federal tax and benefit programs for residents of territories, and may decide to extend the SSI benefits to Puerto Rico as President Joe Biden and others have sought.

Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, writing for the majority, concluded that the question in this case is whether the constitution requires Congress to do so: “The answer is no.”

Because federal law exempts Puerto Rico residents from other laws like federal income tax, Congress also has the power to exempt residents from benefit programs, the opinion states.

Kavanaugh wrote that extending the program to island residents would also likely result in states demanding the federal government extend its taxes as well — and the Constitution does not mandate that “extreme” of an outcome.

Congress chose to treat residents of Puerto Rico differently from residents of the states for purposes of tax laws, so “it could do the same for benefits programs,” the decision said.

Kavanaugh wrote that prior court decisions about interstate travel and a different federal benefits program supported Congress’ ability to treat Puerto Rico residents differently. Congress can make its own decisions on how to balance benefit and tax programs, he wrote.

“Congress need not conduct a dollar-to-dollar comparison of how its tax and benefits programs apply in the States as compared to the Territories, either at the individual or collective level,” Kavanaugh wrote.

In defending the law, the Biden administration pointed to broad language in Article 4 of the Constitution, which gives Congress the authority to govern federal territories. The Justice Department has a long-standing practice of defending the constitutionality of federal statutes, regardless of policy preferences, Biden said last year.

The case came from Jose Luis Vaello-Madero, a resident of Puerto Rico who received SSI benefits while living in New York. When he moved back to Puerto Rico in 2013 he lost eligibility for benefits and the government sought to claw back payments Vaello-Madero received.

Vaello-Madero argued that he met the requirements for the program and Congress’ decision to exclude Puerto Rico residents from the benefits violated the Fifth Amendment. That argument succeeded at district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, and wrote that the court’s decision is “irrational and antithetical to the very nature,” of the Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection. The SSI program makes a direct relationship between the federal government and a beneficiary, Sotomayor wrote.

“[T]here is no rational basis for Congress to treat needy citizens living anywhere in the United States so differently from others,” Sotomayor wrote.

Sotomayor also argued the two cases the court relied on did not dictate the result and did not directly deal with benefit eligibility. “Neither case, however, stood for the principle that Puerto Rico’s tax status could justify any and all unequal treatment of its residents, and neither addressed the claims at issue here,” Sotomayor wrote.

The Biden administration has backed an expansion of SSI benefits and other federal programs to Puerto Rico, but they have not yet passed Congress.

This report was corrected to reflect the potential estimated $23 billion cost over the next decade.