May 24, 2022

SCOTUS permits exclusion of Puerto Rico from federal SSI program

In an 8-1 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with those who fought to uphold a federal statute that excludes American citizens residing in Puerto Rico from receiving federal disability benefits, as The Hill reports.

The justices held that there was no constitutional violation when Congress precluded monthly Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments from going to low-income blind, disabled, or elderly individuals on the island, despite their status as American citizens.

In the majority’s estimation, it was necessary to reverse a lower court finding that a congressional decision – made in 1972 – to declare Puerto Rico ineligible for participation in the SSI program was a violation of the right to equal protection under the U.S. Constitution, as Reuters noted.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, writing for the majority, agreed with arguments made by the Biden administration that the U.S. government is on solid ground when it comes to withholding SSI benefits from Puerto Rico, given the substantial federal tax exemptions residents there already receive.

Kavanaugh explained, “The Constitution afford Congress substantial discretion over how to structure federal tax and benefits programs for residents of the Territories. Exercising that discretion, Congress may extend Supplemental Security Income benefits to residents of Puerto Rico.”

However, the justice continued, “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. The answer is no.”

The sole dissenter, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, expressed her contrary belief that “there is no rational basis for Congress to treat needy citizens living anywhere in the United States so differently from others. To hold otherwise, as the Court does, is irrational and antithetical to the very nature of the SSI program and the equal protection of citizens guaranteed by the Constitution.”

According to NPR, the outcome will have significant consequences for many on the island, and while elderly, blind, and disabled residents will remain eligible for a more locally-controlled aid program, the amount they receive will be roughly 10 times less than they would receive under the federal SSI alternative.

Blasting the ruling was Puerto Rico’s governor, Pedro Pierluisi, who declared, “Enough of this colonial status that discriminates against us and affects our quality of life. The only and the best solution is statehood.”

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