In an 8-1 vote, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by a resident of Puerto Rico who was seeking to receive the same Supplemental Security Income payments he received when living on the U.S. mainland.
Puerto Ricans and the residents of the four other overseas American territories of American Samoa, Guam, Northern Marianas Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands are American citizens (or American nationals in the case of American Samoa), but do not receive the same access to U.S. government benefits accorded to other citizens if they live in their home territory.
Jose Luis Vaello-Madero received SSI benefits when he lived on the U.S. mainland and then continued to receive them after moving back to his home island of Puerto Rico. He was not aware that he could not continue to receive those benefits upon moving to Puerto Rico, and the government sued him to recoup $25,000 he received from the program. He challenged the discrepancy in his ability to receive benefits based on where he lived within the U.S. as a violation of the equal protection clause of the Fifth Amendment.
Writing for the majority, Justice Brett Kavanaugh rejected Vaello-Madero’s claim on the grounds that the Constitution gives Congress the power to set all rules governing U.S. territories. Congress could extend SSI benefits to residents of Puerto Rico if it chose to, something Kavanaugh notes the Biden administration supports, but the Constitution does not require 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,” Kavanaugh wrote. “The answer is no.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the only justice of Puerto Rican descent, wrote the only dissenting opinion.
The ruling in United States v. Vaello-Madero is yet another in a long line of cases related to a series of 100-year-old decisions known as the Insular Cases. Those cases limit the equal access of territorial residents to government benefits and democratic representation based on their race. The court in those decisions deemed them “savage tribes” or “alien” and “uncivilized race[s]” who were “absolutely unfit to receive” the benefits of U.S. citizenship.
The Justice Department argued before the court that the claims in the case did not require the court to address the Insular Cases, as the claim made by Vaello-Madero came under the equal protection clause of the Fifth Amendment and not as a claim under the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. Vaello-Madero also did not directly challenge the Insular Cases.
That did not stop two justices from noting their desire to address the long-standing racist cases.
“A century ago in the Insular Cases, this Court held that the federal government could rule Puerto Rico and other Territories largely without regard to the Constitution,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in a concurring opinion. “It is past time to acknowledge the gravity of this error and admit what we know to be true: The Insular Cases have no foundation in the Constitution and rest instead on racial stereotypes. They deserve no place in our law.”
In his call to overturn the Insular Cases, Gorsuch said that the only reason he concurred in the majority opinion was because “no party asks us to overrule the Insular Cases to resolve today’s dispute.”
Sotomayor, however, dissented from the majority opinion. She challenged the majority’s argument that Puerto Rican residents should continue to be denied benefits accorded to other U.S. citizens because they do not pay the same taxes as mainland U.S. citizens.
“In view of that core purpose, denying benefits to hundreds of thousands of eligible Puerto Rico residents because they do not pay enough in taxes is utterly irrational. Congress’ decision to deny to the U. S. citizens of Puerto Rico a social safety net that it provides to almost all other U.S. citizens is especially cruel given those citizens’ dire need for aid,” she wrote. “Puerto Rico has a disproportionately large population of seniors and people with disabilities.”
Sotomayor rejected the majority opinion’s claim that Congress should determine the fate of the territorial residents’ equal access to the benefits of citizenship by noting that they have no say in Congress because they also lack equal access to democratic representation.
“Equal treatment of citizens should not be left to the vagaries of the political process,” Sotomayor wrote. “Because residents of Puerto Rico do not have voting representation in Congress, they cannot rely on their elected representatives to remedy the punishing disparities suffered by citizen residents of Puerto Rico under Congress’ unequal treatment.”
Sotomayor also noted that she did not address the Insular Cases because the Justice Department did not use them in their arguments, but she gave her endorsement to Gorsuch’s concurring opinion in opposition to the cases in a footnote.
“Those cases were premised on beliefs both odious and wrong, and I share the concurrence’s ‘hope [that] the Court will soon recognize that the Constitution’s application should never depend on the government’s concession or the misguided framework of the Insular Cases,’” Sotomayor wrote.
The court may soon have an opportunity to address these 100-year-old racist precedents in the case of Fitisemanu v. U.S., a direct challenge to the Insular Cases with a 14th Amendment claim. In a sign of his interest in that case, Gorsuch cited it three times in his concurrence.
If the court takes up that challenge to the Insular Cases, civil rights groups have already asked the Biden administration to not defend the racist precedents or cite them in defense of existing U.S. policy.
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