Apr 21, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Supreme Court: Congress does not have to grant disability benefits to Puerto Rico residents

Picture of the Supreme Court building taken with cherry blossom trees in front of it

Photo: Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that the Constitution does not require Congress to extend a federal disability benefits program to residents of Puerto Rico.

The big picture: In an 8-1 decision, the court held that, because Congress treats Puerto Rico residents "differently" from those living in the states for tax law purposes, "it could do the same for benefits programs."

  • A lower court had previously ruled that excluding territory residents from receiving benefits was unconstitutional.
  • Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the only one to dissent.

Catch up fast: The case, U.S. v. Vaello Madero, involved a man, Jose Luis Vaello Madero, who received Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits while he was residing in New York. However, he then moved to Puerto Rico.

  • "Unaware of Vaello Madero’s new residence, the Government continued to pay him SSI benefits. The Government eventually sued Vaello Madero to re- cover those errant payments, which totaled more than $28,000," per the court's decision.
  • Vaello Madero then argued that the move was unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment.

Context: The SSI program gives monthly payments to low-income adults and children with disabilities. People aged 65 and older without disabilities are also eligible for the program.

Details: "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," Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in the court's opinion.

  • "In light of the text of the Constitution, longstanding historical practice, and this Court’s precedents, the answer is no," Kavanaugh added.
  • "In our view, this Court’s precedents, in addition to the constitutional text and historical practice discussed above, establish that Congress may distinguish the Territories from the States in tax and benefits programs such as Supplemental Security In- come, so long as Congress has a rational basis for doing so."
  • "Congress may extend Supplemental Security Income bene- fits to residents of Puerto Rico. Indeed, the Solicitor General has informed the Court that the President supports such legislation as a matter of policy."

The other side: "In my view, there is no rational basis for Congress to treat needy citizens living anywhere in the United States so differently from others," Sotomayor wrote in her dissent.

  • "To hold otherwise, as the Court does, is irrational and antithetical to the very nature of the SSI program and the equal protection of citizens guaranteed by the Constitution."
  • Sotomayor added that since Puerto Rico residents 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."
Go deeper