Things That Matter

Justice Sonia Sotomayor Stood Up as the Lone Dissenting Vote In a Ruling Against Puerto Rico

With a final tally of 8-1, the Supreme Court has voted to uphold a ruling against Puerto Rico that excludes its citizens from receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments, “which [provide] benefits to older, disabled and blind Americans,” according to an article in Time.

An explanation from Justice Brett Kavanaugh cites that Puerto Rican residents are not required to pay federal income taxes, and are therefore not entitled to all the same benefits as citizens in the 50 states. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, herself a person of Puerto Rican descent, emerged as the court’s lone dissenter. 

In response to Justice Kavanaugh’s statement, Sotomayor wrote:

“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. I respectfully dissent.”

Sotomayor’s dissenting vote came in response to a case against Puerto Rican citizen Jose Luis Vaello-Madero, who’s being sued by the federal government for what they claim are more than $28,000 dollars in illegal SSI payments.

Vaello-Madero, who was living in New York at the time, began receiving SSI payments following several strokes that left him unable to work. He continued receiving the payments even after he was back in Puerto Rico. When he called to notify the Social Security Administration, they responded with a lawsuit.

In his written statement, Justice Kavanaugh also referenced two previous rulings that reaffirmed the original federal law establishing SSI relief, which excluded territories of the United States, including Puerto Rico. However, lower courts had already sided with Vaello-Madero, leading the Justice Department to file to appeal their decision and continue pursuing charges against him. 

Although the Biden administration has spoken out in favor of SSI payments for U.S. territories as part of the Build Back Better bill, the Justice Department, which filed for appeal under the Trump administration, has declined to dismiss its case against Vaello-Madero under Biden. As for the federal assistance that does currently exist in U.S. territories, there’s the Aid to the Aged, Blind and Disabled, which has stricter eligibility requirements and offers its beneficiaries smaller payments than SSI.

In addition to the lack of SSI benefits, residents of Puerto Rico are also not permitted to vote for president and are still not represented in Congress, despite being U.S. citizens. The recent ruling against Vaello-Madero is just one of many instances of Puerto Rican residents being treated like second-class citizens in the U.S.

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