Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Potentially Decisive Puerto Rico Case

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On Tuesday, the US Supreme Court heard arguments in a potentially precedent-defining case for the island of Puerto Rico. The American territory exists in a frustrating in-between status, not quite a US state but still part of the US. In the United States v. Jose Luis Vaello-Madero, the court will decide whether it is constitutional for the government to bar American citizens living in Puerto Rico from collecting benefits.

The constitutional rights extended to US citizens are at issue in the case. People who live in Puerto Rico are American citizens, and they can move to the mainland without a visa. Puerto Ricans living in one of the 50 states can access social benefits just like every other citizen. However, the US government argues that those same citizens can not access some programs if they live in Puerto Rico.

Supplemental Security Income

The case centers around Supplemental Security Income, a form of federal assistance available for disabled, older, or blind Americans. SSI is accessible to citizens in all 50 states. Residents of the District of Columbia and the Northern Mariana Islands can also tap into the program. US citizens who live in Puerto Rico, Guam, and the US Virgin Islands, are barred from accessing these benefits.

The case was filed by José Luis Vaello-Madero, 67, who lived in New York from 1985 to 2013. Vaello-Madero began drawing SSI benefits in 2012 while he still lived on the mainland. After he moved to Puerto Rico to be with his wife, he continued to draw benefits until 2016, when the government told him he was ineligible for SSI.

The Social Security Administration sued Vaello-Madero in 2017, arguing that he needed to pay back the $28,000 he had received in benefits while living in Puerto Rico.

Court Hears Arguments

The Supreme Court heard arguments from Deputy Solicitor General Curtis Gannon on Tuesday, who argued on behalf of the US government to withhold SSI benefits from residents in Puerto Rico. Gannon focused on taxation, noting that Puerto Ricans are exempt from programs like federal income taxes.

Justice Sonya Sotomayor disagreed with Gannon’s stance, retorting, “It’s nice to sort of cherry-pick one tax, but that’s true around the country. 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.”

The court seems divided on the case. Justice Brett Kavanaugh stated that Hermann Ferré, Vaello-Madero’s lawyer, made compelling points. However, Kavanaugh insisted, it’s not the role of the Supreme Court to change the Constitution’s territorial clause. A Supreme Court decision on the case is expected later in the term.