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Supreme Court Upholds Law That Denies Disability Benefits To Puerto Ricans

Supreme Court of the United States, Washington DC, USA

Photo: Getty Images

The United State Supreme Court upheld a 1972 law that excludes residents of Puerto Rico from Supplemental Security Income benefits for elderly and disabled people.

When the law was passed, Congress said that only people living in one of the 50 states were eligible for the benefits, while those living in U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico were not.

The case involves a New York resident named Jose Luis Vaello Madero, who collected SSI benefits. When he moved to back to Puerto Rico, he continued to receive payments for several years, totaling $28,000. When officials discovered he was no longer living in New York, they sued him and demanded that he repay the money he received after he left the United States.

In an 8-1 decision, the High Court ruled that Congress is within its power to restrict non-residents from claiming federal benefits.

"In devising tax and benefits programs, it is reasonable for Congress to take account of the general balance of benefits to and burdens on the residents of Puerto Rico," Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote for the majority. "In doing so, Congress need not conduct a dollar-to-dollar comparison of how its tax and benefits programs apply in the States as compared to the Territories, either at the individual or collective level."

Kavanaugh also noted that in many cases, residents of Puerto Rico don't have to pay federal taxes.

"But 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," Kavanaugh wrote.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whose parents are Puerto Rican, was the lone Justice to dissent.

"Because residents of Puerto Rico do not have voting representation in Congress, they cannot rely on their elected representatives to remedy the punishing disparities suffered by citizen residents of Puerto Rico under Congress' unequal treatment," Sotomayor wrote.