![if gte IE 9]><![endif]><![if gte IE 9]><![endif]><![if gte IE 9]><![endif]>
Thank You For Submiting Feedback!
The Supplemental Security Income program provides benefits for, among others, those who are age 65 or older and cannot financially support themselves. To be eligible for Supplemental Security Income, an individual must be a resident of the United States, 42 U.S.C.S. § 1382c(a)(1)(B)(i), which the statute defines as the 50 States and the District of Columbia, 42 U.S.C.S. § 1382c(e). A later statute included residents of the Northern Mariana Islands in the program. Note following 48 U.S.C.S. § 1801; 90 Stat. 268. But residents of Puerto Rico are not eligible for Supplemental Security Income. Instead, the Federal Government provides supplemental income assistance to covered residents of Puerto Rico through a different benefits program—one that is funded in part by the Federal Government and in part by Puerto Rico. Notes following 42 U.S.C.S. §§ 1381-1385.
The Territory Clause of the United States Constitution—which states that Congress may “make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory . . . belonging to the United States,”—affords Congress broad authority to legislate with respect to the U. S. Territories. In exercising that authority, Congress has long maintained different federal tax and benefits programs for residents of the Territories than for residents of the 50 States. For example, residents of Puerto Rico are typically exempt from most federal income, gift, estate, and excise taxes. But just as not every federal tax extends to residents of Puerto Rico, so too not every federal benefits program extends to residents of Puerto Rico. One such benefits program is Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which by statute applies only to residents of the 50 States and the District of Columbia.
Respondent Jose Luis Vaello Madero received SSI benefits while he was a resident of New York. He then moved to Puerto Rico, where he was no longer eligible to receive those benefits. Unaware of Vaello Madero’s new residence, the Government continued to pay him SSI benefits. The Government eventually sued Vaello Madero to recover those errant payments, which totaled more than $28,000. In response, Vaello Madero invoked the Constitution, arguing that Congress’s exclusion of residents of Puerto Rico from the SSI program violated the equal-protection component of the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. The District Court and the Court of Appeals agreed.
Does the equal-protection component of the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause require Congress to make SSI benefits available to residents of Puerto Rico to the same extent that Congress makes those benefits available to residents of the States?
Congress may distinguish the Territories from the States in tax and benefits programs such as Supplemental Security Income, so long as Congress has a rational basis for doing so. Following the different precedents of Court, the deferential rational-basis test applied in the instant case. And Puerto Rico’s tax status—in particular, the fact that residents of Puerto Rico are typically exempt from most federal income, gift, estate, and excise taxes—supplied a rational basis for likewise distinguishing residents of Puerto Rico from residents of the States for purposes of the Supplemental Security Income benefits program. In devising tax and benefits programs, it was reasonable for Congress to take account of the general balance of benefits to and burdens on the residents of Puerto Rico. In doing so, Congress needed not conduct a dollar-to-dollar comparison of how its tax and benefits programs apply in the States as compared to the Territories, either at the individual or collective level. Congress needed only have a rational basis for its tax and benefits programs. Congress has satisfied that requirement here. Moreover, Vaello Madero’s position would usher in potentially far-reaching consequences. For one, Congress would presumably need to extend not just Supplemental Security Income but also many other federal benefits programs to residents of the Territories in the same way that those programs cover residents of the States. And if the Court were to require identical treatment on the benefits side, residents of the States could presumably insist that federal taxes be imposed on residents of Puerto Rico and other Territories in the same way that those taxes are imposed on residents of the States. Doing that, however, would inflict significant new financial burdens on residents of Puerto Rico, with serious implications for the Puerto Rican people and the Puerto Rican economy. The Constitution does not require that extreme outcome.