U.S. Supreme Court to examine Puerto Rico's exclusion from benefits program

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to decide the legality of a decades-old congressional decision to exclude Puerto Rico from a federal program that provides benefits to low-income elderly, blind and disabled people.

Slideshow ( 2 images )

The justices took up a U.S. government appeal originally filed by Republican former President Donald Trump’s administration of a lower court ruling that found the exclusion unlawful.

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.

The Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year in favor of a Puerto Rican resident named Jose Luis Vaello-Madero who had previously received Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits when he lived in New York but lost eligibility when he moved to Puerto Rico in 2013.

The 1st Circuit decided that Puerto Rico’s exclusion from the program violated a provision of the U.S. Constitution that requires that laws apply equally to everyone.

Vaello-Madero, who is 66 years old and disabled, mounted his constitutional challenge after the government sued him in federal court in Washington in 2017 seeking more than $28,000 for payments it had made to him after he moved to Puerto Rico.

The SSI benefits are available to any U.S. citizen living in any of the 50 states, Washington, D.C., and the Northern Mariana Islands, but not the territories of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam.

The decision not to include Puerto Rico was made by Congress when it enacted the program in 1972. Puerto Ricans are eligible for a different program, called Aid to the Aged, Blind and Disabled, that allows for more local control but not as much federal funding, the Justice Department said in court papers.

After Democratic President Joe Biden took office in January, some religious groups urged his administration to drop the appeal. [L1N2KM1J8]

Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, a Republican who is Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative in the U.S. Congress, said in a statement that Biden should “do the right thing and withdraw the case.” Gonzalez-Colon has introduced legislation that would extend the SSI program to Puerto Rico and the other territories.

A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.

Puerto Rico asked the Supreme Court to uphold the 1st Circuit ruling.

“United States citizens who reside in Puerto Rico enjoy much lesser rights than those who reside in the States merely because of Puerto Rico’s status as a territory,” Puerto Rico’s government said in court papers. “This inequality is both unconstitutional and unacceptable.”

The court is likely to hear and decide the case in its next term, which starts in October and ends in June 2022.

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham