Supreme Court rules that residents of Puerto Rico do not have a constitutional right to some federal benefits

Puerto Rico prepares for a new blackout 3:28 (CNN) — Congress can exclude residents of Puerto Rico from some federal disability benefits, available to those who live in all 50 states, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday, in an 8-1 decision, with Judge Sonia Sotomayor against. “In devising tax and benefit programs, it is reasonable for Congress to consider the overall balance of benefits and burdens for residents of Puerto Rico. In doing so, Congress does not need to make a dollar-for-dollar comparison of how enforce their tax and benefit programs in the States as opposed to the Territories, either individually or collectively,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote for the majority. The case concerned Supplemental Security Income, which is available to those living in all 50 states who are over 65, blind or otherwise disabled. But residents of Puerto Rico and other US territories are excluded from receiving the funds. Judge Sonia Sotomayor, whose parents were born in Puerto Rico, wrote the only dissenting opinion. “The equal treatment of citizens should not be left to the whims of the political process,” she wrote. “Since the residents of Puerto Rico do not have voting representation in Congress, they cannot trust their elected representatives to remedy the punitive disparities suffered by the resident citizens of Puerto Rico for unequal treatment by Congress.” This is the case of José Luis Vaello-Madero, who was born in Puerto Rico in 1954 but lived in New York from 1985 to 2013. In 2012, he was determined to be entitled to receive disability payments after a stroke, which was deposited directly into your checking account. After he moved back to Puerto Rico in 2013, he continued to accept payments until the government realized he was living outside of the 50 states. He was told that his benefits would be stopped and that he would have to pay US$28,081 in arrears. His attorneys subsequently sued, arguing that the exclusion of Puerto Rican residents violated equal protection. Hermann Ferre, an attorney for Vaello-Madero, said the program was intended to replace “an uneven patchwork of programs” for people with disabilities with a “uniform standard of national support” so poor and disabled Americans could live in dignity. “But that guarantee is not enjoyed by all Americans,” he said, arguing that the court should be suspicious of the exclusion because it leaves out Puerto Ricans because of their race. The Joe Biden administration defended the exclusion, pointing out that most Puerto Ricans are exempt from federal taxes, so Congress could take that small contribution into account when excluding them from some disability benefits. A government attorney stressed that it would be up to Congress to expand the benefits, and President Biden has already asked Congress to do so. “It is always appropriate for Congress to consider the overall balance of benefits and burdens associated with a particular federal program,” Assistant Attorney General Curtis E. Gannon told the justices in oral arguments.