New-Resident Limits on Welfare Rejected
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 18, 1999; Page A1
The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that states may not limit welfare benefits for new residents, likely invalidating laws in 15 states, including Maryland. The decision is important not only for poor people who rely on public assistance, but also for the justices' revival of a constitutional doctrine making citizens of all states equal.
By a 7 to 2 vote in the first high court test relating to the nation's massive welfare overhaul, the justices struck down a California law that restricted new residents' welfare checks for one year to the amount they had collected in their previous state. Congress, in its 1996 reconstruction of welfare policy, endorsed such limits.
But yesterday the Supreme Court said a two-tier system violates poor people's right to travel and encroaches on their right to be treated like other residents of their new state.
"Citizens of the United States, whether rich or poor, have the right to choose to be citizens of the state wherein they reside," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court. "The states, however, do not have any right to select their citizens."
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, criticizing the court's rationale and emphasizing a state's interest in trying different welfare plans and keeping down costs.
The ruling affects a provision of Maryland's 1996 welfare law that limited payments for the first 12 months of Maryland residency. Under the two-tier system, new residents received only the amount of welfare they received in their prior state; if the former home provided a larger payment, Maryland then paid the lower amount. The law, a response to concerns about a possible influx of welfare recipients from neighboring states with lower welfare payments, had reportedly affected fewer than 250 families.
"Maryland will adhere to the ruling and come into full compliance with the Supreme Court decision," said Elyn Jones, a spokesperson for the Maryland Department of Human Resources. The state hopes to alter its computers to pay the higher benefit levels as soon as possible, perhaps as early as June.
Peter Sabonis, a lawyer for the Family Investment Program Legal Clinic in Baltimore, said he did not think the decision would affect large numbers of welfare recipients in Maryland, but would make a big difference to a few, perhaps resulting in payment increases of $50 to $100 a month. "It is a big deal, especially when you consider these folks live on the edge," he said. "In some cases, it would mean the difference between paying the rent or not paying it."
In addition to prohibiting states from discriminating against new residents, the court's decision also breathed life into a provision of the Constitution that says: "The citizens of each state shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens of the several states."
Harvard law professor Laurence H. Tribe said yesterday that by using that broad citizenship rationale to bolster an unstated but implicit constitutional right to travel, the Supreme Court has deepened the grounding for protecting new residents in a state. That rationale "shows the importance of national and state citizenship," Tribe said, and forbids states from treating newcomers like strangers simply because they had lived elsewhere.
Tribe and other legal analysts across the ideological spectrum said the restoration of a doctrine that had effectively been declared dead in the 19th century and used by the court to strike down a state law only once before in this century could mean greater protection for fundamental rights in the future.
In the meantime, advocates for the poor praised yesterday's decision.
"It glues the nation together," said Marc D. Rosenbaum of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, who had represented the families that had moved to California from low-benefit states.
Stevens illustrated how new California residents were penalized in their eligibility for monthly benefits for needy families, by noting that the residents of Louisiana and Oklahoma who relocated to California would receive only $190 and $341 per month, respectively, for a family of three, even through the comparable California grant was $641.
California had argued that it could save $10.9 million in welfare costs each year with the two-tiered system. But while Stevens called that amount "surely significant," he noted that it is a tiny fraction of the state's $2.9 billion annual welfare budget. And he wrote, "the state's legitimate interest in saving money provides no justification for its decision to discriminate among equally eligible citizens."
California Gov. Gray Davis (D) said yesterday through a spokesman that he was disappointed that the court ruled the law unconstitutional.
Yesterday's ruling in Saenz v. Roe flowed partly from a 1969 court decision, based on the right to travel, that said states cannot outright deny welfare benefits to new residents. It also drew upon a new use of the 14th Amendment's privileges and immunities clause. Stevens said the 1996 federal welfare law, which gave states new flexibility to design their own programs and allowed them to provide less aid to families from lower-benefit states, could not override these constitutional concerns.
Staff writers Judith Havemann and Donna St. George contributed to this report.
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