WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court balked on Wednesday at the government’s interpretation of an entitlement program that would limit education benefits for veterans who served in multiple wars.
“That seems odd, doesn't it, that Congress is going to penalize a veteran who has … served the country for a longer period of time, put himself at risk in not one war but two wars, and now we’re going to deprive him of any access to the more fulsome benefits?” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said.
Chief Justice John Roberts said there was something wrong with the government’s reading of the statute because Congress would not have wanted to give military members who served for longer fewer benefits.
“It seems to me to be a pretty raw deal to say you’re going to lose … because you served an additional period of time,” the Bush appointee said.
James Rudisill served both before and after 9/11. First joining in 2000, Rudisill served for two years before he was honorably discharged in 2002. He reenlisted as a member of the Army National Guard in 2004, resulting in his deployment to Iraq. The Army honorably discharged him in 2005, but he then joined in an officer position in 2007.
In between Rudisill’s disjointed service, he attended college and earned his undergraduate degree. His schooling was covered by the benefits he earned through the Montgomery GI bill, entitling him to 36 months of benefits.
During his third service stint, Congress enacted the Post-9/11 GI Bill, giving veterans 36 months of benefits for their service. Lawmakers made the bill retroactive, applying to service members who served on or after 9/11.
This meant that members of the military who served both before and after 2001 — like Rudisill — were entitled to both Montgomery and 9/11 GI benefits. These benefits are limited to 48 months. The government argues Rudisill also faces a limit on the dual use of the Montgomery and Post-9/11 GI bills that would limit his Post-9/11 benefits to the amount of his unused Montgomery benefits.
After leaving the military for good, Rudisill was admitted into Yale Divinity School, where he hoped to get an education for service as a chaplain in the Army. He thought that abiding by the 48-month cap would leave him with 22 months of benefits, enough to cover his degree.
Veterans Affairs, however, said Rudisill would be limited to the remainder of his Montgomery entitlement, only 10 months. Rudisill appealed the decision, but the Board of Veterans’ Appeals upheld the benefits allotment.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims reversed, finding that the history and text of Congress’ entitlement program supported Rudisill. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed.
At the Supreme Court, the government said veterans in Rudisill’s situation have to choose which benefits they want to use.
“In other words, if you’re eligible for both Montgomery and Post-9/11 benefits, you must make a choice,” Vivek Suri, assistant to the solicitor general at the Justice Department said. “You can elect Post-9/11 benefits or you can elect Montgomery benefits.”
Justice Elena Kagan described the government’s interpretation of veterans' entitlements as arbitrary, noting the government was forcing service members to choose between losing benefits. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said that choice would prevent veterans from collecting the benefits they are entitled to.
“A person who has two separate periods of service and is entitled under the statute … to both Montgomery and Post-9/11, but you say he has to choose as though he is not allowed to cash in or take advantage of both,” Jackson said.
Roberts said Congress’ intent in enacting education entitlement plans was to assist service members' transition from military duty to civilian life, but the government’s interpretation of the statute would limit veterans to only one opportunity at this transition.
The government said it was just following Congress’ lead. If veterans felt entitled to more than one transition, they should take it up with lawmakers.
Rudisill said this flies in the face of Congress’ intent. He argued lawmakers did not force veterans into a choice over which benefits they wanted.
“The exhaustion requirement that is the linchpin of the VA’s interpretation finds no grounding in the statutory text and produces absurd results, such as punishing veterans with less wartime benefits for simply having served the nation longer,” Misha Tseytlin, an attorney with Troutman Pepper Hamilton representing Rudisill, said.Follow @KelseyReichmann
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