SCOTUS justices question exclusion of Puerto Ricans from SSI benefits

As the Supreme Court’s current term continues, the justices seem to be divided over whether elderly and/or disabled U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico should receive the same SSI benefits provided to residents of the States, NBC News reports.  

The case was brought by a man, José Luis Vaello-Madero, who received SSI benefits for years while living on the mainland U.S. until he moved to the island to take care of his disabled wife, and was told he could no longer receive SSI benefits.

Justices are seemingly wrestling with whether it is constitutional to deny the citizens benefits based on living in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory.

The exclusion was put in place because Puerto Ricans are exempt from paying most federal taxes, including federal income tax.

Not fair to “cherry-pick”

Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor pointed out that Puerto Ricans do pay payroll taxes, including Social Security and Medicare taxes, and contribute around $4 billion annually to the U.S. as a result.

“It’s nice to sort of cherry-pick one tax, but that’s true around the country,” Sotomayor said. “So, I don’t know how exempting out one or two taxes gets you away from seeing whether the government’s distinction is rational based on the need of the citizens who are supposed to receive the money.”

Not paying federal income and other taxes also prohibits Puerto Ricans from receiving other types of aid, and prevents them from having representation in Congress.

Sotomayor further said that states were not responsible for the SSI program, so the fact that Puerto Rico didn’t pay federal taxes should not matter.

“I don’t understand what the different relationship with Puerto Rico has to do with this program because there’s no cost to the government,” the justice said. “The money’s going directly to the people, not to the government.”

Gorsuch also questioning

Sotomayor is a liberal justice in the minority of the court, but if one or two of the six conservative justices agree with her view, the case could still go in the plaintiff’s favor.

Justice Neil Gorsuch wondered if the insular cases, which allowed the U.S. to treat citizens in territories as “foreign” in some cases, were wrongly decided.

In essence, that is what the courts have done, treat citizens as foreigners. Now, it remains to be seen what the courts will decide to do about it.

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