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Excluding Puerto Rico from safety-net benefits doesn’t violate Constitution, court says

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Residents of Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories do not have a constitutional right to receive certain federal benefits that the government provides to people who live in the 50 states, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday in an 8-1 decision.

The case, United States v. Vaello Madero, involved Supplemental Security Income, a safety-net program that provides cash assistance to older, disabled, or blind Americans who have very low incomes. Congress excluded residents of Puerto Rico and three other territories from the program.

Jose Luis Vaello-Madero, a U.S. citizen who lives in Puerto Rico, argued that the exclusion violates the Constitution’s guarantee of equal treatment for all. In an opinion by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the court rejected that argument.

“The Constitution affords Congress substantial discretion over how to structure federal tax and benefits programs for residents of the Territories,” Kavanaugh wrote.

Many federal laws, Kavanaugh noted, treat the territories differently from the states — and not always to the detriment of the territories’ residents. For instance, Puerto Rico residents are exempt from federal income tax, though they do pay other federal taxes such as Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment taxes.

“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.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the lone dissenter. “In my view,” she wrote, “there is no rational basis for Congress to treat needy citizens living anywhere in the United States so differently from others. 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.”

Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch each wrote separate concurrences.

Thomas questioned the court’s longstanding precedent that the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause (which applies to the federal government and was the basis for Vaello-Madero’s constitutional challenge) contains an equal-protection guarantee that is identical to the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment (which applies to the states). Thomas said the 14th Amendment’s citizenship clause may offer a more solid constitutional basis for prohibiting racial discrimination by the federal government.

Gorsuch called on the court to formally overturn a series of notorious early-20th-century decisions, known as the Insular Cases, in which the court invoked racist stereotypes and held that some constitutional rights do not extend to people living in Puerto Rico and other so-called “unincorporated” territories. As Gorsuch acknowledged, however, neither the federal government nor Vaello-Madero had asked the court to overturn the Insular Cases. Instead, the case was litigated under the assumption that the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection applies in Puerto Rico. Kavanaugh’s majority opinion held that Congress’ exclusion of SSI benefits does not violate that guarantee, a holding that Gorsuch joined.

President Joe Biden has urged Congress to end the exclusion and extend the SSI program to Puerto Rico. But even if Congress did so, that would be far from the end of differential treatment of the territories in federal policymaking. Other safety-net programs also withhold benefits from the territories, even though the territories tend to have higher unemployment and lower average incomes than the states. Kavanaugh’s opinion suggests that Congress has wide latitude to continue or even increase this differential treatment so long as the government can point to a rational basis — the lowest level of constitutional scrutiny — for doing so.

Recommended Citation: James Romoser, Excluding Puerto Rico from safety-net benefits doesn’t violate Constitution, court says, SCOTUSblog (Apr. 21, 2022, 1:28 PM),