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Battle wages at high court to endow Puerto Ricans with Social Security benefits

President Biden has called for the territory's residents to get Social Security, but the federal government has not followed suit.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The justices of the Supreme Court tangled with their own precedents disenfranchising the constitutional rights of Puerto Ricans while trying to decide if the territory’s citizens should be allowed Social Security benefits. 

Jo Luis Vaello-Madero was a resident of New York when he began receiving supplemental Social Security Income payments in 2012. When he later moved back to his birthplace of Puerto Rico to care for his wife, he continued to receive SSI benefits for three years. That stopped, however, when the government became apprised of his move in 2016. The government also told Vaello-Madero he would be responsible for the repayment of benefits he received in Puerto Rico totaling over $28,000. 

Vaello-Madero took his case to court, ultimately prevailing every step of the way. The United States then asked the Supreme Court to take up the case, claiming that Puerto Rico’s unique tax status within the federal government is the reason why its residents are not eligible for the same SSI benefits enjoyed by citizens in the District of Columbia and the Northern Mariana Islands where they are not granted full rights available in states but receive SSI benefits.

The system appeared to rankle Justice Sonia Sotomayor. 

“Puerto Ricans are citizens and the constitution applies to them,” the Obama appointee said. “Their needy people are being treated different than the needy people in the 50 states, the District of Columbia and the Northern Mariana Islands.”

A series of the court’s opinions from the 1900s known as the insular cases — which have not yet been overruled — established that the constitution does not fully apply to U.S. territories. The justices pondered whether they would have to overrule these precedents, which could complicate Vaello-Madero’s benefits claim. 

Justice Neil Gorsuch asked the government why the court shouldn’t overrule the cases. 

“Why shouldn't we just admit that insular cases were incorrectly decided … Why shouldn't we just say what everyone knows to be true,” the Trump appointee asked. 

It was not a universal view, however, among Gorsuch’s colleagues. Justice Stephen Breyer said overruling the insular cases would be a “big bite” since the court hadn’t fully argued those issues. Justices Elena Kagan, Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh also seemed skeptical of overruling those precedents to make a ruling in this specific case. 

Curtis E. Gannon, deputy solicitor general at the Department of Justice, argued those issues weren’t relevant to the case. 

“The conclusion that parts of the constitution wouldn't apply to Puerto Rico doesn't decide anything that is relevant to this case,” Gannon said. 

Sotomayor picked apart the government’s argument saying the SSI program is fully funded by the government so their taxes should not matter, and that most SSI recipients don’t pay taxes anyway. Sotomayor continued that Puerto Ricans actually pay more taxes than the residents of many states. 

“Puerto Ricans as a community, in all the other taxes they pay, pay more than many states of the union,” Sotomayor said. “So I don't know how exempting out one or two taxes gets you away from seeing whether the government's distinction is rational based on the need of the citizens who are supposed to receive the money.”  

Gannon argued that the aggregate amount of money being sent to the federal government from Puerto Rico is larger than some states but that’s just because there is a larger community in Puerto Rico that’s being taxed. 

Justice Stephen Breyer jumped on this claim, asking if it had ever been used to deny a state benefits because of the proportion of taxes they paid. Gannon said that the government had never done that to a state. Breyer also dissected the Federal Relations Act, which, according to his reading, says that federal laws not locally inapplicable should apply in Puerto Rico. 

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“The Federal Relations Act were designed to put Puerto Rico in a status that isn't, in practice, quite that of a territory. … So shouldn't we, in fact, look at the purpose of the Federal Relations Act and say it takes a little bit more, a little bit more in terms of a good reason to exclude Puerto Rico from a benefit than would the Marianas and Guam and the other territories that have no such act or is it totally irrelevant,” the Clinton appointee asked. “Did we tell the United Nations something that wasn't true?” 

Gannon argued that Puerto Rico does have its own government so they could raise taxes on their own, however, Sotomayor quickly questioned this premise considering it is in a temporary bankruptcy. 

“It's illusory to think that Puerto Rico's local economy couldn't match the federal economy and give those tax resources to its needy,” Sotomayor said. 

Vaello-Madero’s attorney Hermann Ferre, an attorney from Curtis Mallet-Prevost, argued that Congress’s decision to not grant Puerto Ricans SSI benefits reflects the incorrect view that they are not part of the United States. 

“Congress' decision to exclude the poor and disabled in Puerto Rico is based on the false premise that they are outside the U.S.,” Ferre said. 

This case was originally brought under the Trump administration, and the Biden administration decided to continue with it even though President Biden himself does not agree with the Department of Justice’s arguments in the case. 

“This provision is inconsistent with my Administration’s policies and values,” Biden said in a June 7 statement. “However, the Department of Justice has a longstanding practice of defending the constitutionality of federal statutes, regardless of policy preferences. This practice is critical to the Department’s mission of preserving the rule of law. Consistent with this important practice, the Department is defending the constitutionality of the Social Security Act provision in this case.” 

Biden called on Congress to amend the Social Security Act. Gannon also took this view. 

“Of course, it would also be rational for Congress to make changes on either side of its balance between taxes and benefits, and the President has already called on Congress to extend SSI benefits to the residents of Puerto Rico,” Gannon said. “But whether and how to alter the balances underlying current social welfare policies are decisions that are left to Congress and evaluated under a deferential rational basis standard that this court should find has been satisfied here.” 

Ferre said these claims were disingenuous, however, considering Puerto Rico does not have voting representation in Congress. 

“I think going back to the fact that this population is politically powerless, I think that it's pretty disingenuous to say that, really, this should be left to Congress,” Ferre said in a phone call following the arguments. “This population doesn't have voting representation in Congress so the idea that you leave to the political process, a process by which this population has been excluded just makes no sense.” 

Ferre said the insular cases created the premise that Puerto Ricans were foreign. 

“There's something pretty demeaning about telling a person that they're foreign,” Ferre said. “They're in their own country and yet they're being told that they're not, they're outside the country, as if they had moved to Mexico or Costa Rica, when in fact, they continue to be in their country. All of that is an emanation of the insular cases.” 

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