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.