Supreme Court Denies Equal Rights To Puerto Ricans — Again

In an 8-1 vote, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by a resident of Puerto Rico who was seeking to receive the same Supplemental Security Income payments he previously received when living on the U.S. mainland.

Puerto Ricans and the residents of the four other overseas American territories of American Samoa, Guam, Northern Marianas Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands are American citizens (or American nationals in the case of American Samoa), but do not receive the same access to U.S. government benefits accorded to other citizens if they live in their home territory.

Jose Luis Vaello-Madero received SSI benefits when he lived on the U.S. mainland and then continued to receive them after moving back to his home island of Puerto Rico. He was not aware that he could not continue to receive those benefits upon moving to Puerto Rico, and the government sued him to recoup $25,000 he received from the program. He challenged the discrepancy in his ability to receive benefits based on where he lived within the U.S. as a violation of the equal protection clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Writing for the majority, Justice Brett Kavanaugh rejected Vaello-Madero’s claim on the grounds that the Constitution gives Congress the power to set all rules governing U.S. territories. Congress could extend SSI benefits to Puerto Rican residents if it chose to, something Kavanaugh notes the Biden administration supports, but the Constitution does not require it.

“The limited question before this Court is whether, under the Constitution, Congress must extend Supplemental Security Income to residents of Puerto Rico to the same extent as to residents of the States,” Kavanaugh wrote. “The answer is no.”

The ruling in Vaello-Madero is yet another in a long line of cases related to a series of 100-year old decisions known as the Insular Cases. Those cases limit the equal access of territorial residents to government benefits and democratic representation based on their race. The court in those decisions deemed them “savage tribes” or “alien” and “uncivilized race[s]” who were “absolutely unfit to receive” the benefits of U.S. citizenship.

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

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