WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court hears oral arguments on Tuesday over how Congress is denying residents of Puerto Rico certain social security benefits, in a case that could change the unusual and controversial relationship between Congress and the island territory that the States- United acquired more than a century ago.
The case concerns a man with serious health problems, Jose Luis Vaello-Madero, who moved from New York to Puerto Rico in 2013 and thus lost his eligibility for benefits. A provision in a 1972 law provides for additional security income for the elderly, blind, and disabled, but not in Puerto Rico and most other U.S. territories.
A move that forces the United States to include Vaello-Madero and other residents of Puerto Rico in the program could cost an additional $ 23 billion over the next decade and affect other laws that deal with Puerto Rico and other territories differently from the 50 states. A decision is expected by the end of the mandate at the end of June.
Lawyers for Vaello-Madero say the provision is unconstitutional because the benefits of a national welfare law go to Americans with disabilities in all 50 states, but not Americans with disabilities in Puerto Rico, which as a non-state , does not have the right to vote in Congress to change try to change it.
Judges heard from lawyers for Vaello-Madero that the disparate treatment stems from a “quagmire of racial and ethnic discrimination,” and the court’s review of this law would thwart how Congress “continues to keep Puerto Rico in. a state of unlimited political conflict. incapacity.”
In fact, the decision of Congress to exclude Puerto Rico from the ISS solely on the basis that it is “outside the United States” can be directly attributed to a historic desire to choose the people of Puerto Rico for a less treatment because of his crossbreeding and Hispanic descent, ”wrote lawyers for Vaello-Madero in a brief in the case.
Federal government lawyers told judges that the Vaello-Madero situation strongly illustrates the need to improve assistance to those in need in Puerto Rico and that President Joe Biden supports a policy to expand the benefits of the government. SSI there, but also that it was not the role of the court to see whether the actions of Congress are related to a legitimate interest of the government.
“The proper mechanism for effecting such a change in welfare policy is an action by Congress – not a decision of this Court setting aside its precedents and invalidating an act of Congress under rational review,” the Department of Justice wrote in a brief.
Puerto Rico’s treatment has sparked a flurry of legislation in the territory and some hearings in this Congress, including bills on SSI benefits. They didn’t have a lot of traction.
The lower courts in the case ruled that the provision violated the equal protection portion of the Fifth Amendment’s due process protections.
And a federal appeals court rejected the government’s arguments that Congress could justify excluding Puerto Rico for three reasons: that residents do not pay federal income tax, that the cost would be high, and that it would disrupt Puerto Rico’s economy.
In part, the United States will argue that the Constitution gives Congress broad power to treat territories differently from states.
Factors include the relationship between the territory and the United States, the degree of fiscal and governmental autonomy the territory has, economic and social conditions, political ties with the United States, and whether the territory can evolve towards the United States. state or independence over time.
“Courts have neither the constitutional authority nor the institutional jurisdiction to review Congress’s weighting of these intensely political considerations,” the Justice Department told judges in a brief.
Congress provides federal assistance to Puerto Rico through a different program – Help for the Elderly, Blind and Disabled – which offers more local control but less federal funding and covers fewer people with a lower benefit level.
A year ago, when the Trump administration asked the Supreme Court to hear the case, the Justice Department argued that a ruling against the provision “could affect many other laws of Congress that treat Puerto Rico differently from the states and the District of Columbia for the purposes of federal benefit programs.
This includes portions of Medicare, Medicaid, a school meals program, a pandemic relief fund, temporary assistance for needy families, and child protection services.
The Biden administration added that a ruling that overturns two precedents in this area could challenge laws that treat territories more favorably than states – for example, laws exempting Puerto Rico from most federal taxes.
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