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Court Weighs Welfare Limit for Newcomers

By Joan Biskupic
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 14, 1999; Page A03

The Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday on whether a state can limit the amount of public assistance it gives newly arrived residents in a case that offers the first major high court test of the nation's welfare reform law adopted two years ago. Several justices voiced concerns that a two-tiered benefit policy unfairly hurts needy people who want to move from one state to another.

California restricts welfare benefits for new residents for one year to the level they received in the state where they previously lived. Backed by the federal government and other states with similar policies, California says its program represents a legitimate way to keep down costs and make sure it does not become a magnet for poor families willing to move to maximize their public assistance checks.

But the welfare recipients challenging the policy say it discourages poor families from moving and violates their constitutional "right to travel" among the states. Lower federal courts struck down the California law for penalizing newcomers.

The case has drawn great interest from state and local governments and an array of civil libertarians and groups representing the poor and homeless. In the wake of welfare reform, states are increasingly worried that people on public assistance will move to the location with the most generous benefits, and to counteract that possibility, 13 states, including Maryland, have adopted policies similar to California's.

Yesterday many of the justices expressed worries about the effects of those laws. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg suggested the policy violates a fundamental principle "that is the genius of the United States . . . that people can pick their states and states can't pick their people."

"This has grave consequences for [a] family," said Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, noting that the California law means a newly arrived family of four would not be eligible for a monthly benefit of about $600 but would instead get the $300 or less allowed in some other states.

California had been experimenting with a new-resident differential earlier in the decade but sought to fully put the two-tier system in place after Congress passed the 1996 welfare overhaul. That legislation rewrote 60 years of welfare policy, requiring recipients to work in exchange for assistance and limiting the number of years a family could receive benefits. It also gave states new flexibility to design their own programs and permitted them to provide less aid to those families arriving from lower-benefit states.

Deputy California Attorney General Theodore Garelis argued that his state's law was not a violation of a 30-year-old landmark case in which the Supreme Court forbade laws requiring people to live in a state for a year before collecting public assistance. California, he noted, was not denying benefits to newcomers outright but simply reducing, for a limited period, the check. As a result, Garelis said any effect on the right to travel was "incidental."

"We're not trying to deter travel in any way, shape or form," he said. Solicitor General Seth Waxman, siding with Garelis, urged the justices to consider Congress's goal that states not become welfare magnets or try to reduce their benefits below the level of neighboring states so that they become less attractive to poor people.

"Congress is not fencing anybody out," Waxman said.

Justice David H. Souter said he doubted, however, that Congress's endorsement of the program would remove its constitutional problem of discouraging travel by treating old residents better than new ones.

Ginsburg questioned whether, if a state could limit welfare for new residents, it could assess higher taxes or higher motor vehicle registration fees, if that was the situation in their former states. "I just want to know how far this principle goes," she said dubiously. "Are there any limits to this?"

Mark D. Rosenbaum, of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, represented the challengers, including a woman dubbed "Brenda Roe" who moved with her family from Oklahoma and would have gotten about $300 per month (the Oklahoma rate) rather than the California benefit of nearly $600. (The law has never taken effect because of court challenges.)

The Constitution protects people's right to travel and their right to equal protection of the laws, Rosenbaum said, "Citizens are free to vote with their feet." As a result, he argued, a state cannot discourage people from moving in by telling them they will get less in welfare benefits than established residents.

A ruling in the case of Anderson v. Roe is likely to be handed down by the summer.

Separately yesterday, the justices ruled unanimously that police need not tell someone whose property has been seized for a criminal investigation how to get it back. The court said that police officers must make sure that an owner knows police seized the cash or other property, so the owner knows who took it. But the high court, rejecting a ruling by the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals, said in City of West Covina v. Perkins that police need not instruct owners on how to recover it when the case is over.

Staff writer Barbara Vobejda contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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