In the Vaello-Madero case before the Supreme Court, the lawyer for the U.S. government argued that it is okay to exclude Puerto Rico from SSI benefits because residents of Puerto Rico don’t pay federal income tax.
Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor questioned the logic of this claim.
“If Congress said, Vermont, you have too many needy people, the cost is going to be too great to us, we’re not going to pass the law on to Vermont, would that pass equal protection?”
Equal protection is part of the 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It says that the government must give equal protection to everyone under its laws. Sotomayor suggested that this case would not come up for a state like Vermont as it did for Puerto Rico.
Mr. Gannon, the U.S. government’s lawyer, said that this has never happened to a state, but that Puerto Rico has a different relationship to the U.S. than states do. The federal government doesn’t collect income tax from Puerto Rico, so the territory, he said, had more money available to its government than a state would.
Justice Sotomayor continued, “This program is fully funded by the federal government, fully administered by the federal government. There’s no cost to Puerto Rico. There’s no cost to any state. And so 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. It’s not as if it could take this federal money, Puerto Rico, and distribute it in some other way or put this money to use in some other way because the money’s going directly to the people, not to the government.”
Mr. Gannon said again that Puerto Rico doesn’t pay federal income taxes and therefore shouldn’t get equal benefits.
SSI recipients don’t pay taxes
Justice Sotomayor continued, “As the courts below noted, most of the SSI recipients, if not all of them, don’t pay taxes. So it’s not as if the recipients of this money are any different among themselves. Puerto Ricans are citizens, and the Constitution applies to them. Their needy people are being treated different than the needy people in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the Northern Mariana Islands.”
SSI benefits are available to people living in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the Northern Mariana Islands, but not to people living in Puerto Rico.
“So explain how those people, none of whom pay taxes to the federal government, how are they different?” asked Justice Sotomayor.
Mr. Gannon answered, “They are different because they live in a community, in a locality where there is less tax money being taken by the federal government out of that community.”
Justice Sotomayor referred to another case that showed “They pay as much taxes, other combined taxes, as other states in the union.”
She went on to say, “It’s hard to imagine that Puerto Rico has the ability, given that it’s in temporary bankruptcy, to do what you say to be able to raise taxes to help the needy…It’s illusory to think that Puerto Rico’s local economy could match the federal economy and give those tax resources to its needy.”
Mr. Gannon repeated that Puerto Rico does not pay federal income taxes.
“Needy is needy, whether in Puerto Rico or in the mainland,” said Justice Sotomayor. “None of the people who receive it on the mainland pay taxes. None of the money is or would go to Puerto Rico for its self-governance. I do think that restrictions have to be rational.”
Do restrictions have to be rational?
Congress is allowed, under the U.S. Constitution, to treat an unincorporated territory differently from a state. The is why statehood is needed to achieve equality and justice for Puerto Rico.
Tell your legislators that you want equality through statehood for Puerto Rico.