Supreme Court Case Tests Equal Rights of U.S. Citizens in Puerto Rico

Nov 10, 2021
3:50 PM

The flags of the United States and Puerto Rico/Wikimedia Commons

On Tuesday, November 9, the Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments in the case of United States v. José Luis Vaello Madero. At issue is whether a U.S. citizen should have equal access to social safety-net programs when living in a U.S. territory.

The actual wording of the question presented to the Court is as follows: “Whether Congress violated the equal-protection component of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment by establishing Supplemental Security Income —a program that provides benefits to needy aged, blind, and disabled individuals— in the 50 States and the District of Columbia, but not extending it to Puerto Rico.”

Vaello, 67, had been a resident of the State of New York since 1985 and long suffered from “severe health problems” when he began receiving SSI disability benefits in 2012. The following year he moved to Puerto Rico to live near his family, and continued receiving SSI payments deposited directly into his bank account.

But U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico are not eligible for equal benefits.

When Vaello applied for retirement benefits in 2016, the Social Security Administration (SSA) learned of its error and stopped payments. The Department of Justice then sued Vaello the following year for receiving SSI benefits while living in Puerto Rico, demanding he repay the $28,081 that the SSA had “incorrectly paid him” over the three years.

Arguing that his unequal treatment as a U.S. citizen of Puerto Rico violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, Vaello’s lawyers, working pro bono, won in the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico in February 2019 (with Judge Gustavo Gelpí presiding).

“The court suggested that Congress may have excluded Puerto Rico in order to harm citizens ‘of Hispanic origin,’ ” reads the opening brief filed on June 7, 2021, “but found it unnecessary to consider that theory further because it believed that the exclusion of Puerto Rico failed ‘rational basis scrutiny.’ ”

“The court concluded that ‘the principal purpose of the statute is to impose inequality,’ and it rejected the government’s contentions that the statute reflected valid distinctions between Puerto Rico and the States.”

In short, the district court ignored Supreme Court precedents and ruled that there is no legitimate reason to provide U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico social benefits unequal to those in the State of New York or elsewhere.

The federal government then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit (to which Judge Gelpí was recently appointed). In April 2020, the court of appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision, finding that the federal government violated Vaello’s constitutional right to equal protection under the law when it denied him the Social Security benefits he had received as a New York resident once he moved to Puerto Rico.

The Department of Justice, representing the United States, immediately appealed to the Supreme Court, asking the court to either “summarily reverse the decision” or at least review it. The federal government is arguing that the lower court’s decision rules “unconstitutional a decades-old Act of Congress” —and since no longstanding act of Congress can be unconstitutional…— that the lower court’s ruling conflicts with earlier precedents, that it “threatens to impose billions of dollars in costs on the United States,” and it “could affect numerous other Acts of Congress that treat Puerto Rico differently than the States … for purposes of federal benefits programs.”

The federal government is basically telling the Supreme Court that it has a constitutional right to treat U.S. citizens unequally depending on where they live.

The petition to the Supreme Court was initially filed by the Trump administration in September 2020, but the case is now being carried forward by the Biden administration.

“By appealing decisions issued by the lower courts that reject discrimination, the Biden administration is inviting the Supreme Court to join in perpetuating injustice against classes that should be constitutionally protected, an invitation we fear the current Court majority would be all too willing to accept,” wrote New York Attorney General Leticia James, the Hispanic Federation, and others in a letter sent to the White House on November 4.

“Imagine the U.S. Department of Justice mounting an argument against providing equal access to potentially life-changing, and even lifesaving, federal benefits to an American citizen living in New York, Florida, Oklahoma, or any other state,” said James.

“Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, and they deserve Constitutional protections,” said Hispanic Federation CEO Frankie Miranda. “Arguing that the current Administration is obligated to defend the denial of these constitutional rights to Puerto Ricans would be antithetical to the values you have exhibited in so many other respects as a candidate and as President to Puerto Ricans.”

“Emblazoned on the Supreme Court are the words ‘Equal Justice Under Law,” noted Neil Weare, president and founder of Equally American, which fights for equal rights in U.S. territories. “The oral arguments in Vaello Madero will put a test to whether these words mean the same thing for citizens in U.S. territories as they do for citizens everywhere else.”

An estimated 450,000 U.S. citizens living in U.S. territories stand to receive Social Security benefits should the Supreme Court rule in favor of Vaello, according to Equally American, and 98 percent of the U.S. citizens living in territories belong to racial or ethnic minority groups.

Equally American filed an amicus brief along with ACLU Foundation, the ACLU of Puerto Rico, Demos, and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee. Other parties have filed other amicus briefs, including Attorney General James and 18 other attorneys general, the District of Columbia, Hawaii (a former U.S. colony), Guam (another U.S. colony, or “territory”), Massachusetts, New York, New Mexico, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Virginia, the Northern Mariana Islands (another colony), the U.S. Virgin Islands (another colony), LULAC, the American Bar Association (“There is no rational basis for denying … Puerto Rico residents equal participation in the SSI program”), and Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi and the New Progressive Party (“Congress made Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens more than a century ago”).

Equally American also launched the “I Am José” campaign, tying his case to similar cases involving residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and American Samoa—all U.S. colonies like Puerto Rico.

“Now that the case for equality has been made to the Supreme Court, we need to shift our focus to Congress, where the extension of SSI benefits to citizens in the territories has been included by House Democrats in the draft of the budget reconciliation bill,” says Weare. “Getting that across the finish line will be hard work over the next few weeks, but we can’t lose focus.”

It’s shocking that, in 2021, the U.S. government would be claiming the power to deny equal rights to U.S. citizens. But then it’s even more shocking that the U.S. government still owns colonies.

In coming up with a reason why U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico should be denied equal access to social safety-net programs, Deputy Solicitor General Curtis Gannon, arguing on behalf of the U.S. government, floated the notion at Tuesday’s hearing that Puerto Ricans don’t pay their fair share of federal taxes.

Puerto Ricans “pay as much taxes, other combined taxes, as other states in the union,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a Puerto Rican herself and the first Latino to sit on the Court, responded. “It’s nice to sort of cherry-pick one tax, but that’s true around the country. So, I don’t know how exempting out one or two taxes gets you away from seeing whether the government’s distinction is rationally based on the need of the citizens who are supposed to receive the money.”

Seeing Justice Sotomayor question a Democratic administration’s arguments for denying equal rights to Puerto Ricans recalls a similar situation in 2016.

In Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle, the Obama administration, represented by Assistant Solicitor General Nicole Saharsky, argued that while the U.S. government had granted Puerto Rico some degree of autonomy after it approved Puerto Rico’s constitution in 1952, the people of Puerto Rico had no real sovereignty when it came to issues like double jeopardy.

“Before 1952, Congress could veto Puerto Rico’s laws. It has relinquished that right,” Sotomayor stated at the time, to which Saharsky responded: “I don’t think that that’s right, and … it’s just not consistent with the Territory Clause of the Constitution.”

One now wonders if the Biden administration thinks its arguments for treating the people of Puerto Rico as second-class citizens are consistent with equal rights, “justice for all,” and other democratic principles.


Hector Luis Alamo is the Senior Editor at Latino Rebels and hosts the Latin[ish] podcast. Twitter: @HectorLuisAlamo