Sunday, May 1, 2022

Time for Equal Rights for Puerto Rico?

            Jose Vaello-Madero, who was born and grew up in Puerto Rico, lived in New York City from 1985 to 2013 and during that time benefited from one of the federal government’s “safety net” programs: the Social Security Administration’s Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, available to low-income individuals with disabilities. Vaello-Madero moved back to Puerto Rico in 2013 to care for his ailing wife.

            In a ham-handed decision issued last week [April 28], the Supreme Court held on an 8-1 vote that Vaello-Madero and other residents of Puerto Rico are ineligible for SSI benefits, under a quirk in Social Security law that specifically excludes residents of Puerto Rico from SSI benefits. The dissenting judge, unsurprisingly, was Sonia Sotomayor, whose Puerto Rican parents moved to New York City before the future justice was born. The decision in United States v. Vaello-Madero included, however, one surprise: Justice Neil Gorsuch used the case to call for overruling the early twentieth-century decisions known as the Insular Cases that relegate Puerto Rico to second-class legal status within the United States.

            More than a century after the United States acquired Puerto Rico by conquest in the Spanish-American war, the time has come to end the semi-colonial status and admit Puerto Rico to statehood. Note that Puerto Rico’s current population of almost 3.2 million is greater than the population of seventeen states: Alaska, Arkansas, the Dakotas, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho,  Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

            After moving to Puerto Rico, Vaello-Madero lost his eligibility to SSI benefits. If he had moved anywhere else in the United States, he would have still been eligible for the benefits. Vaello-Madero was unaware of a quirk in the Social Security law that specifically excludes residents of Puerto Rico from SSI benefits. The provision at issue, 42 U.S.C. §1382(f), limits SSI benefits to people who “reside in the United States”—defined in the statute as the fifty states and the District of Columbia. That provision also excluded residents of Guam and the Virgin Islands, but Congress amended the law in 1976 to extend benefits to residents of the Northern Mariana Islands.

            Unaware that he was no longer eligible for SSI benefits, Vaello-Madero never notified Social Security of his move. Social Security continued to send his monthly benefits to his New York address until it finally learned he was living in Puerto Rico. Adding insult to injury, Social Security sued Vaello-Madero for $28,000 in restitution for the benefits unknowingly sent to his former address. Vaello-Madero responded to the suit by filing his own suit in federal district court in Puerto Rico to challenge the exclusion of Puerto Rican residents as a violation of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, which extends to all American citizens.

            In upholding the exclusion, the Court, in an opinion by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, noted that Puerto Rico has exempted residents of Puerto Rico from most federal taxes “for various historical and policy reasons.” He noted further that Congress “likewise [has] not extended certain federal benefits programs to residents of Puerto Rico. He noted as well that the Constitution’s Territory Clause (Art. IV, §3, cl. 2) authorizes Congress “to make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory . . . belonging to the United States.”

To Kavanaugh, the Constitution’s text, the colonial-type historical precedents, and the Court’s discreditable precedents gave Congress the authority to ignore the Equal Protection Clause in denying safety-net benefits to the millions of U.S. citizens resident in Puerto Rico.

Seven justices, all but Sotomayor, joined Kavanaugh’s opinion in full. Thomas, in another example of his idiosyncratic jurisprudence, used the case as the occasion to deny that the federal government is subject to the Equal Protection Clause at all; the Court, ever since the 1950s, has recognized that the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, applicable to the federal government, includes an “equal protection component” that requires the federal government as much as the states to guarantee equal protection of the laws to all U.S. citizens.

In a separate concurring opinion, Gorsuch bluntly called for overruling the Insular Cases, which he rightly explained rested on “racial stereotypes.” He acknowledged as an unsatisfactory “workaround” the Court’s decisions recognizing certain constitutional guarantees as sufficiently “fundamental” to extend to the territories anyway. “The time has come,” Gorsuch added in conclusion, “to recognize that the Insular Cases rest on a rotten foundation. And I hope the day comes soon when the Court squarely overrules them.”

In her opinion, Sotomayor made a hash of the supposed logic in Kavanaugh’s opinion. The SSI program, she noted, “establishes a direct relationship between the recipient and the Federal Government” based upon “uniform eligibility criteria that disburses directly and uniformly to recipients without regard to where they reside.” “Under the current system,” she added, “the jurisdiction in which an SSI recipient resides has no bearing at all on the purposes or requirements of the SSI program.”

Sotomayor acknowledged that residents of Puerto Rico typically are exempt from paying some federal taxes, bur argued that “that distinction does not create a rational basis to distinguish between them and other SSI recipients” because “[b]y definition, SSI recipients pay few if any taxes at all.” To “deny[] benefits to hundreds of thousands of eligible Puerto Rico residents because they do not pay enough in taxes is utterly irrational,” Sotomayor added, “antithetical to the very nature of the SSI program and the equal protection of citizens guaranteed by the Constitution.”

No comments:

Post a Comment