WASHINGTON — The immediate question for Supreme Court justices during an altercation on Tuesday was whether Congress was free to exclude Puerto Rico residents from a Social Security program that offers monthly cash payments to elderly, blind and disabled people who are not in their own home. can provide maintenance.
Over that question loomed the bigger problem of Puerto Rico’s status as a territory, not as a state. Residents are U.S. citizens, but cannot vote in federal elections and generally do not pay federal income tax. Much of the argument concerned the implications of those facts for the treatment of Social Security benefit recipients depending on where they live.
The benefits, called Supplemental Security Income, are available to U.S. citizens in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the Northern Mariana Islands, but not Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Guam.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whose parents were from Puerto Rico, said that was fundamentally unfair.
“Puerto Ricans are citizens and the Constitution applies to them,” she said. “Their needy people are treated differently than the needy people in the 50 states.”
The case, United States v. Vaello-Madero, No. 20-303, involved Jose Luis Vaello-Madero, a disabled man who received the benefit while living in New York and continued to receive it after moving to Puerto Rico in 2013. When notified of the move, the Social Security Administration requested a refund of benefits Mr Vaello-Madero had received since then, eventually suing him for approximately $28,000.
Mr Vaello-Madero said the law violated his right to equal protection and won in the lower courts.
President Biden said in June that excluding Puerto Rico from the program was “inconsistent with my administration’s policies and values” and called on Congress to address the issue.
On Tuesday, however, the Justice Department defended the law in the Supreme Court.
Curtis E. Gannon, a federal attorney, said Congress made a rational choice by excluding Puerto Rico, given residents’ general exemption from paying federal income taxes.
Hermann Ferré, a lawyer for Mr. Vaello-Madero, said there should be uniform standards for government benefits and noted that the residents of Puerto Rico have no political power.
He asked the court to overturn a series of early 20th-century decisions known as the Insular Cases, which ruled that areas acquired by the United States were not automatically entitled to all of the Constitution’s protections.