By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday is set to weigh the legality of a decades-old congressional decision to exclude Puerto Rico from a federal program that provides benefits to low-income elderly, blind and disabled people.
The justices are hearing the U.S. government’s appeal of a lower court ruling that deemed Puerto Rico’s exclusion from the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program unlawful.
The appeal originally was filed by Republican former President Donald Trump’s administration. His Democratic successor Joe Biden has continued the appeal while at the same time urging Congress to extend SSI to Puerto Rico.
Many Puerto Ricans have long complained that the Caribbean island’s residents are treated worse than other Americans despite being U.S. citizens. Puerto Rico, which is not a state, is the most-populous of the U.S. territories, with about 3 million people.
The case involves a Puerto Rican resident named Jose Luis Vaello-Madero who received SSI benefits when he lived in New York but lost eligibility when he moved to Puerto Rico in 2013.
The Supreme Court has been instrumental in defining the legal status of Puerto Ricans dating to a series of rulings starting more than a century ago called the Insular Cases, some suffused with racist language. The rulings endorsed the notion that the people of newly acquired U.S. territories could receive different treatment than citizens living in U.S. states. Vaello-Madero’s case gives the justices an opportunity to revisit those rulings.
The Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year in favor of Vaello-Madero, deciding that Puerto Rico’s SSI exclusion violated a provision of the U.S. Constitution that requires that laws apply equally to everyone.
Vaello-Madero, who is 67 years old and disabled, mounted his constitutional challenge after the government sued him in federal court in Washington in 2017 seeking more than $28,000 for payments it made to him after he moved to Puerto Rico.
The government’s lawsuit was filed a month before Vaello-Madero lost the roof of his home in Hurricane Irma, which was followed weeks later by the devastating Hurricane Maria.
SSI benefits are available to U.S. citizens living in any of the 50 states, Washington, D.C., and the Northern Mariana Islands, but not the territories of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam.
Congress decided not to include Puerto Rico when it enacted the program in 1972. Puerto Ricans are eligible for a different government program, called Aid to the Aged, Blind and Disabled, that allows for more local control but not as much federal funding, the Justice Department said in court papers.
The Supreme Court’s ruling is due by the end of June.
Biden said in June that the existing law’s denial of SSI benefits to residents of Puerto Rico is “inconsistent with my administration’s policies and values” and asked lawmakers to amend the statute to extend the benefits to the territory.
After passing infrastructure legislation on Saturday, congressional Democrats are working to finalize a massive social spending bill, the latest draft of which includes a provision extending the benefits to Puerto Rico. If that legislation passes, it would limit the importance of the Supreme Court’s eventual ruling.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)