Supreme Court Shuts Puerto Ricans Out of Benefits

Majority notes federal income tax doesn't apply to the territory, either
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Apr 21, 2022 4:10 PM CDT
Supreme Court: SSI Benefits Can Exclude Puerto Ricans
Puerto Rico's capitol in San Juan.   (Getty/A Bello)

The Supreme Court has upheld the differential treatment of residents of Puerto Rico, ruling that Congress was within its power to exclude them from a benefits program that's available in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The court held by an 8-1 vote Thursday that making Puerto Ricans ineligible for the Supplemental Security Income program, which provides benefits to older, disabled, and blind Americans, did not unconstitutionally discriminate against them. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whose parents were born in Puerto Rico, was the lone dissenter.

Writing for the court, Justice Brett Kavanaugh said the court was bound by a pair of earlier rulings that already upheld the federal law that created SSI and excluded Puerto Rico and other US territories from it. Congress later added in the Mariana Islands. Puerto Rico has been a US territory since the Spanish American War in 1898, and its residents are US citizens. They can vote in primaries but not the presidential election, and they have limited representation in Congress. Many also do not pay federal income tax. Kavanaugh wrote that "just as not every federal tax extends to residents of Puerto Rico, so too not every federal benefits program extends to residents of Puerto Rico."

Sotomayor responded: "In my view, 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." The decision outraged many in Puerto Rico, including Gov. Pedro Pierluisi, who said statehood is the only solution to Puerto Rico's second-class status. "The decision ... once again confirms that the territorial status of Puerto Rico is discriminatory for the island’s US citizens and allows Congress to do what it wants with us," he said. Pierluisi noted that Puerto Rico also receives unequal treatment when it comes to Medicaid, Medicare, and other federal programs.

(More Puerto Rico stories.)

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