Supreme Court Looks at Puerto Rico’s Status in Case on Benefits



Photo: A handwritten list made by Abraham Rivera Berrios shows the details of the expenses involved in caring for his son Emanuel Rivera, who was born severely disabled and needs constant care, at his home, in Toa Alta, Puerto Rico, September 22, 2021. Source:


By: Mariah Abdelaziz


At the Center Stage:


Some of the Supreme Court justices posed tough questions during arguments in the case to the attorneys for the United States government, which appealed to a lower court ruling that excluding Puerto Rico’s Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program violated a mandate by the United States Constitution that the laws apply equally to all.


Photo: A woman waves the Puerto Rican flag at a news conference on the island’s statehood on Capitol Hill on March 2. Source:


Decoding in detail:

The immediate question for the Supreme Court justices at an argument on Tuesday was whether Congress was free to exclude residents of Puerto Rico from a Social Security program that provides monthly cash payments to older, blind and disabled people who cannot support themselves.


Looming over that question was the larger issue of Puerto Rico’s status as a territory, not a state. Its residents are U.S. citizens but cannot vote in federal elections and generally do not pay federal income taxes. Much of the argument concerned the implications of those facts for treating recipients of Social Security benefits differently depending on where they live.


The benefits, called Supplemental Security Income, are available to U.S. citizens in the 50 states, the District of Columbia and the Northern Mariana Islands, but not in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam.


Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whose parents were from Puerto Rico, said that was fundamentally unfair.


“Puerto Ricans are citizens, and the Constitution applies to them,” she said. “Their needy people are being treated different than the needy people in the 50 states” Sotomayor said.


The case, United States v. Vaello-Madero, No. 20-303, concerned Jose Luis Vaello-Madero, a disabled man who received the benefits when he lived in New York and continued to get them after he moved to Puerto Rico in 2013. When the Social Security Administration became aware of the move, it sought repayment of the benefits Mr. Vaello-Madero had received since then, eventually suing him for about $28,000. Mr. Vaello-Madero said the law violated his right to equal protection, winning in the lower courts.


Treating a U.S. citizen as a foreign

Deputy Solicitor General Curtis Gannon relied on three key points to push the court to reverse a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling from last year deeming “invalid” the practice of denying SSI benefits to Puerto Rican residents, stating the federal government failed to establish “a rational basis for the exclusion of Puerto Rico residents from SSI coverage.”


One of those points is based on the fact that Puerto Ricans on the island are exempted from most federal taxes, including income tax.


Sotomayor saying that Puerto Ricans “pay as much taxes, other combined taxes, as other states in the union.”


Puerto Ricans do pay federal payroll taxes and help fund public programs such as Medicare and Social Security, contributing more than $4 billion annually in federal taxes to the United States.


“It’s nice to sort of cherry-pick one tax, but that’s true around the country,” Sotomayor said. “So, I don’t know how exempting out one or two taxes gets you away from seeing whether the government’s distinction is rational based on the need of the citizens who are supposed to receive the money.”


Nevertheless, Congress decided not to include Puerto Rico when it enacted the program in 1972. Puerto Ricans are eligible for a different government program, called Aid to the Aged, Blind and Disabled, that allows for more local control but not as much federal funding.


The appeal originally was filed by Republican former President Donald Trump’s administration. His Democratic successor Joe Biden has continued the appeal while at the same time urging Congress to extend SSI to Puerto Rico.


A provision extending SSI benefits to Puerto Rico is being considered as part of Democratic-backed social spending legislation being crafted in Congress. Enactment of the provision would limit the importance of the Supreme Court’s eventual ruling, due by the end of June.


Conservative justices wondered about the repercussions of a ruling favouring Vaello-Madero including whether other benefits would have to be extended to residents of U.S. territories.


Justice Amy Coney Barrett noted that if there was “equal treatment across the board” then questions would be raised over whether Puerto Ricans should pay federal income taxes. Justice Brett Kavanaugh said Vaello-Madero’s lawyer made “compelling policy arguments” but noted that a clause of the Constitution specifically allows Congress to treat territories differently than states.

Kavanaugh said it is a part of the Constitution that “people would want to change” but that it is not the court’s role to do that.



However, it remained unclear whether the Supreme Court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, ultimately will rule in favour of Puerto Rican resident Jose Luis Vaello-Madero, who received SSI benefits when he lived in New York but lost eligibility when he moved to Puerto Rico in 2013.


Many Puerto Ricans have long complained that the Caribbean island’s residents are treated worse than other Americans despite being U.S. citizens. Puerto Rico, which is not a state, is the most-populous of the U.S. territories, with about 3 million people.


Differences in taxation limit Puerto Ricans on the island in other ways, including the lack of voting representation in Congress and the inability to vote in U.S. presidential elections, among other restrictions when it comes to accessing federal safety net programs.


Sotomayor pointed out that the SSI program is fully funded by the federal government, meaning that states don’t incur any costs when making these benefits available to their residents.


“I don’t understand what the different relationship with Puerto Rico has to do with this program because there’s no cost to the government,” she said. “The money’s going directly to the people, not to the government” Sotomayor added.



Hurley, L ( November 9, 2021), “U.S. Supreme Court wrestles with Puerto Rico’s exclusion from benefits program”. Retrieved from:

Acevedo, N (November 10, 2021). “Supreme Court seems divided over Puerto Rico’s exclusion from federal benefits”. NBC News. Com, Retrieved from: