By the State and Local Legal Center
In United States v. Vaello Madero the U.S. Supreme Court held 8-1 that Congress hasn’t violated the equal-protection component of the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause by failing to make Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits available to Puerto Rico residents.
Through SSI, the federal government makes monthly cash payments to qualifying low-income individuals who are older than 65 years old, blind or disabled. To receive SSI, an individual must be a “resident of the United States,” which the statute defines as the 50 states, the District of Columbia and the Northern Mariana Islands.
According to the court, “the Federal Government provides supplemental income assistance to covered residents of Puerto Rico through a different benefits program—one that is funded in part by the Federal Government and in part by Puerto Rico.” Residents of Puerto Rico don’t pay most federal income, gift, estate and excise taxes.
When Jose Luis Vaello Madero moved from New York to Puerto Rico he was no longer eligible to receive SSI. He claimed excluding Puerto Rican residents from SSI is unconstitutional.
In a very brief opinion written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the court disagreed, citing to the “text of the Constitution, longstanding historical practice, and this Court’s precedents.”
Regarding the constitution’s text, the Territory Clause states that Congress may “make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory . . . belonging to the United States.” According to Kavanaugh, “[t]he text of the Clause affords Congress broad authority to legislate with respect to the U.S. Territories.”
Regarding precedent, in Califano v. Torres (1978) the court held that Congress’s refusal to extend SSI to Puerto Rico didn’t violate the constitutional right to interstate travel. In that case, the court applied the “deferential” rational-basis test and explained that Congress had exempted Puerto Rician residents from federal taxes. Likewise, in Harris v. Rosario (1980) “the Court again ruled that Congress’s differential treatment of Puerto Rico in a federal benefits program did not violate the Constitution—this time, the equal-protection component of the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.”
According to the court, the above two cases determine the result in this case and that the rational-basis test applies. “Puerto Rico’s tax status—in particular, the fact that residents of Puerto Rico are typically exempt from most federal income, gift, estate, and excise taxes—supplies a rational basis for likewise distinguishing residents of Puerto Rico from residents of the states for purposes of the Supplemental Security Income benefits program.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented alone, opining “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.”