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U.S. Supreme Court declines to extend federal benefits to Puerto Rico

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Congress can prevent people in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico from participating in a federal program that provides benefits to low-income elderly, blind and disabled people, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.

The justices ruled 8-1 in favor of President Joe Biden's administration, saying that the decision by Congress decades ago to exclude Puerto Rico from the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program did not violate a U.S. Constitution mandate that laws apply equally to everyone.

The decision means that an estimated 300,000 people on the Caribbean island cannot receive the benefit. The federal government said an expansion to Puerto Rico would have cost $2 billion a year.

The court held in an opinion by conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh that the actions of Congress were valid under a provision in the Constitution that lets lawmakers treat territories differently than states. Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whose parents are from Puerto Rico, was the sole dissenter.

A provision extending SSI benefits to Puerto Rico is part of Democratic-backed social spending legislation that has stalled in Congress.

Puerto Rico resident Jose Luis Vaello-Madero, who is 67 years old and disabled, received SSI benefits when he lived in New York but lost eligibility when he moved to Puerto Rico in 2013. The U.S. government sued Vaello-Madero in federal court in Washington in 2017 seeking more than $28,000 for SSI payments he received after moving to Puerto Rico.

A lower court ruled that Puerto Rico's SSI exclusion violated the Constitution's equal protection mandate, prompting the government's appeal.

Many Puerto Ricans have long complained that the 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.

SSI benefits are available to American citizens 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 Supreme Court has been instrumental in defining the legal status of Puerto Ricans dating to a series of rulings starting more than a century ago called the Insular Cases, some suffused with racist language. The rulings endorsed the notion that the people of newly acquired U.S. territories could receive different treatment than citizens living in U.S. states.

The federal government's central argument was that the congressional decision to exclude Puerto Rico was rational based on the fact that Puerto Ricans do not pay many federal taxes, including income tax.

Congress decided not to include Puerto Rico when it enacted the SSI 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. The administration of Biden, a Democrat, continued the appeal while at the same time urging Congress to extend SSI to Puerto Rico.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

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