WASHINGTON, Nov. 9 (Reuters) – The United States Supreme Court on Tuesday considered whether a Congressional decision five decades ago to exclude Puerto Rico from a federal program that provides benefits to the elderly, low-income blind and disabled people was illegal.
Some of the nine justices posed tough questions during argument in the case before the U.S. government attorney, who appealed a lower court ruling that the exclusion from the Supplemental Security Income program ( SSI) of Puerto Rico violated a mandate in the U.S. Constitution that laws apply equally to everyone. .
But it’s unclear whether the Supreme Court, which has a Conservative 6-3 majority, will ultimately rule in favor of Puerto Rican resident Jose Luis Vaello-Madero, who received SSI benefits while living in New York City but lost. his eligibility when he moved to Puerto Rico in 2013.
Many Puerto Ricans have long complained that residents of the Caribbean island are treated worse than other Americans, despite being US citizens. Puerto Rico, which is not a state, is the most populous territory in the United States, with approximately 3 million people.
SSI benefits are available to U.S. citizens living in any of the 50 states, Washington, DC, and the Northern Mariana Islands, but not in the territories of Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Guam.
If Vaello-Madero wins, more than 300,000 Puerto Rican residents could become eligible for the benefit at a cost the US government has estimated at $ 2 billion per year.
The Supreme Court has been instrumental in shaping the legal status of Puerto Ricans in a series of rulings dating back more than a century called the Island Cases, some steeped in racist language. The rulings endorsed the idea that residents of newly acquired US territories could receive different treatment than citizens living in US states.
The Vaello-Madero case gives judges the opportunity to review these decisions. Conservative judge Neil Gorsuch seemed interested in doing so.
“Why shouldn’t we just admit that island affairs were badly decided? Gorsuch asked.
Liberal Judge Sonia Sotomayor, whose parents were from Puerto Rico, mentioned the story of Puerto Ricans being treated as second-class US citizens.
“Puerto Ricans are citizens and the Constitution applies to them. Their needy people are treated differently from needy people in all 50 states,” Sotomayor said.
The central argument of the federal government is that Congress’ decision to exclude Puerto Rico was rational on the basis that Puerto Ricans do not pay a lot of federal taxes, including income tax.
Conservative judges questioned the repercussions of a ruling in favor of Vaello-Madero, including whether other benefits should be extended to residents of U.S. territories.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett noted that if there was “equal treatment at all levels,” questions would arise as to whether Puerto Ricans should pay federal income taxes. Judge Brett Kavanaugh said Vaello-Madero’s lawyer presented “compelling political arguments,” but noted that a clause in the Constitution specifically authorizes Congress to treat territories differently from states.
Kavanaugh said it was part of the Constitution that “people would like to change” but that it was not the role of the court to do so.
Vaello-Madero is 67 years old and disabled. The government sued him in federal court in Washington in 2017, asking for more than $ 28,000 for SSI payments he received after moving to Puerto Rico.
Congress decided not to include Puerto Rico when it passed the program in 1972. Puerto Ricans are eligible for a different government program called Aid for the Elderly, Blind and Disabled, which allows for more local control but not as many. federal funding.
The appeal was originally filed by the administration of former Republican President Donald Trump. His Democratic successor Joe Biden continued the call while urging Congress to expand the ISS to Puerto Rico.
A provision extending SSI benefits in Puerto Rico is being considered as part of Democrat-backed welfare spending legislation being drafted in Congress. Passage of the provision would limit the significance of the possible Supreme Court ruling, expected by the end of June.
Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham
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