Supreme Court backs Congress on Puerto Rico resident benefits

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In defending the law, the Biden administration has pointed to the broad language of Section 4 of the Constitution, which gives Congress the power to govern federal territories. The Justice Department has a long-standing practice of upholding the constitutionality of federal laws regardless of political preferences, Biden said last year.

The case came from Jose Luis Vaello-Madero, a Puerto Rican resident who received SSI benefits while living in New York. When he returned to Puerto Rico in 2013, he lost his eligibility for benefits, and the government sought to claw back the payments Vaello-Madero had received.

Vaello-Madero argued that he met the terms of the program and that Congress’s decision to exclude Puerto Rican residents from the benefits violated the Fifth Amendment. This argument succeeded in the District Court and the United States Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented and wrote that the court’s decision is “irrational and contrary to the very nature” of the Constitution’s equal protection guarantees. The SSI program establishes a direct relationship between the federal government and a recipient, Sotomayor wrote.

“[T]there is no rational basis for Congress to treat needy citizens living anywhere in the United States so differently from others,” Sotomayor wrote.

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