The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

High court rules Congress can exclude Puerto Ricans from aid program

The Supreme Court building in 2020. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
4 min

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Congress may continue excluding residents of Puerto Rico from a federal program that aids low-income elderly, disabled and blind people.

The decision was 8 to 1, the lone dissenter being Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whose parents were born on the island.

President Biden’s administration, like the Trump administration before it, defended Congress’s right to exclude residents of Puerto Rico from the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program without violating the Constitution’s promise of equal protection. But Biden also has called for the law to be changed.

The exclusion means about 300,000 people on the island who would qualify for the benefit if they lived elsewhere cannot receive it.

“The limited question before this Court is whether, under the Constitution, Congress must extend Supplemental Security Income to residents of Puerto Rico to the same extent as to residents of the States.” Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh wrote for the majority. “The answer is no.”

Congress has devised a unique mix of burdens and benefits for residents of Puerto Rico, Kavanaugh noted, including a lesser tax obligation.

“Puerto Rico’s tax status — in particular, the fact that residents of Puerto Rico are typically exempt from most federal income, gift, estate, and excise taxes — supplies a rational basis for likewise distinguishing residents of Puerto Rico from residents of the States for purposes of the Supplemental Security Income benefits program,” he wrote.

He added that Congress is free to extend the SSI benefits to Puerto Ricans if it chooses, noting that the White House supports such legislation.

How Ketanji Brown Jackson will recast the Supreme Court

The case involved Jose Luis Vaello Madero, who received SSI payments in 1985 in New York. The payments continued to his bank account even when he moved to Puerto Rico in 2012. But the money stopped when the government learned of his new address. Moreover, the government attempted to recover more than $28,000 Madero received.

SSI benefits are available to U.S. citizens living in any of the 50 states, District of Columbia and the Northern Mariana Islands. Along with Puerto Ricans, those in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam are excluded.

Sotomayor said a program that is designed to help the poorest citizens should not depend on location.

“In my view, there is no rational basis for Congress to treat needy citizens living anywhere in the United States so differently from others,” she wrote.

She rejected the government’s tax burden argument, which the majority accepted. “While it is true that residents of Puerto Rico typically are exempt from paying some federal taxes, that distinction does not create a rational basis to distinguish between them and other SSI recipients,” she wrote. Because the program aids the poor, elderly and disabled, “SSI recipients pay few if any taxes at all.”

Sotomayor said that those in Puerto Rico who met the standards for help should receive it. “SSI is a means-tested program of last resort for the poorest Americans,” she wrote. “Residents of Puerto Rico who would be eligible for SSI are like SSI recipients in every material respect: They are needy U. S. citizens living in the United States.

In a notable opinion concurring with the majority, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch said it was time for the court to revisit what are called the Insular Cases, century-old rulings that gave the federal government license to rule Puerto Rico and other territories, in Gorsuch’s words “largely without regard to the Constitution.”

“The Insular Cases have no foundation in the Constitution and rest instead on racial stereotypes,” Gorsuch wrote. “They deserve no place in our law.”

One such decision, Gorsuch noted, said it would not be advisable to apply the Constitution to islands “inhabited by alien races, differing from us in religion, customs, laws, methods of taxation, and modes of thought.”

Gorsuch brought up the issue in oral arguments in the Puerto Rico case, and the government’s lawyer said the administration was not relying on the cases to make its case about the SSI payments. Later, a group of civil rights organizations called upon the administration to explicitly disavow them.

“Because no party asks us to overrule the Insular Cases to resolve today’s dispute, I join the Court’s opinion,” Gorsuch wrote. “But the time has come to recognize that the Insular Cases rest on a rotten foundation. And I hope the day comes soon when the Court squarely overrules them.”

The case is U.S. v. Vaello Madero.