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VI The government and the bar file amicus briefs in the SSI case

The USVI government and the VI Bar Association filed amicus briefs with the United States Supreme Court on Tuesday, asking judges to uphold an appeals court ruling that banning residents from Puerto Rico to pay the additional security income violates the equal protection clause of the US Constitution.

They join more than 20 other entities, including the American Bar Association and the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, which have filed briefs in support of the respondent José Luis Vaello-Madero, whom the US government has taken to court. to recover the SSI benefits he says he received illegally. when he moved from New York State to Puerto Rico.

The federal SSI program provides monthly payments to disabled or blind adults and children who have limited income and resources, and to people 65 and over without disabilities who meet financial qualifications. However, residents of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and other U.S. territories except the Northern Mariana Islands are prohibited by federal law from participating.

Vaello-Madero began receiving SSI benefits in 2012 as a resident of New York State, which he continued to receive when he moved to Puerto Rico in 2013 to take care of his wife. However, in 2016, the Social Security Administration said it was revoking his benefits retroactively to the date he established his residence on the island because he was “outside the United States.”

In 2017, the US Department of Justice filed a criminal law suit against Vaello-Madero – with the threat of up to five years in prison – to recover $ 28,081 in SSI benefits it received in Puerto Rico.

The Justice Department lost its case in the U.S. District Court in Puerto Rico, then appealed again to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in April 2020. It then appealed to the court Supreme, which granted reconsideration of the case in March.

The Justice Department argued in its submission to the United States Supreme Court in June that while Congress has the power to extend SSI benefits to U.S. citizens residing in the overseas territories, not to do so does not violate the Constitution as Puerto Rico’s “unique” status benefits its residents. who pay less federal taxes and therefore can support themselves.

To defend its cause, the Ministry of Justice relied on a series of Supreme Court decisions from the beginning of the last century. Known collectively as Island Affairs, they established a legal doctrine of “separate and unequal” status for US citizens of the Overseas Territories based on the theory that their inhabitants belonged to “uncivilized races.” and “extraterrestrials” who were “unfit” to manage the full rights and duties of citizenship.

Calling the second-class constitutional status of the American territories – which exist in legal limbo as the “unincorporated” of the United States – “a legal problem with real consequences for the more than 100,000 inhabitants of the Virgin Islands”, the VI government called on the Supreme Court to uphold the first circuit’s decision.

“The Supplementary Social Security (SSI) benefits at issue in this case are just one example of a centuries-old tradition of treating US citizens of the territories as a distinct and disadvantaged class. This tradition, born of the infamous “island cases”, is rooted not in the Constitution but in an explicitly racist and colonialist ideology of the 19th century, “the VI government said in its 44-page amicus brief.

“USVI submits this brief amicus curiae to urge the Court to uphold the First Circuit ruling, extend all rights and privileges of citizenship to Americans residing in the Territories, and recant Island affairs and their shameful legacy of second citizenship. class. for a low-profile group of loyal Americans based solely on where they live in the United States, ”the brief said.

Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle LLP’s legal team that represents Vaello-Madero pro bono argued in its 63-page response to the Department of Justice that the government’s justification for denying SSI benefits is not only “extremely out of touch with the political and fiscal reality of Puerto Rico, but it also fails to explain why poor and disabled Americans in Puerto Rico have to bear this burden while Americans in similar circumstances in more jurisdictions. autonomous from our federated system, the states are not required to make this sacrifice. “

The Justice Department’s argument is specious in that SSI recipients don’t earn enough money to pay federal taxes, it’s not a self-funded program like Social Security, and poorer states the wealthiest receive aid as well as the Northern Mariana Islands, which has tax exemptions similar to those of Puerto Rico, lawyers said.

“While some federal insurance programs are funded by their beneficiaries, SSI is not. It does not matter for SSI eligibility whether an individual resides in New York and pays federal income tax before moving to Puerto Rico (like the Respondent), or lives in Puerto Rico before moving to New York to receive the SSI, ”they said.

The disparity is such that Puerto Rico receives some $ 36 million in federal aid through adult assistance programs such as Aid for the Elderly, Blind and Disabled, where more than $ 2 billion is reportedly available in under the ISS, raising serious issues of equal protection, lawyers for Vaello-Madero mentioned. “The exclusion of Puerto Rico from ISS is therefore not a question of respect for autonomy, but of arbitrary negligence. “

The same can be said of the USVI, the VI Government argues in its brief, noting that its annual federal assistance to the elderly and disabled is capped at $ 3.5 million, of which nearly $ 2.9 million. are absorbed by the Islands grant for the Temporary Needy Families Assistance Program, leaving only about $ 700,000 for payments to the elderly and disabled in need. Adding to the burden, the cap is not indexed to inflation and has remained the same since 1997.

The average payment to benefit recipients in the territory for all programs combined was only $ 176.07 per month in 2011, compared to about $ 600 per month for state residents, the VI government said in its brief. To make matters worse, “while the average household income in the United States is significantly lower than in the poorest states, the cost of living exceeds the national average by 40-50%,” the VI government wrote in his brief.

“The cost of administering these programs also strangles the economy of the territory,” he said. Under the current system, that burden falls on the territory which must also fund 25% of all benefits, while the federal government covers 100% of SSI payments to states, according to the brief.

“For some reason, the United States believes that the prevalence of ‘banal’ discrimination against a group of Americans is in itself justification for its continuation. This, of course, is nonsense, ”the VI Bar Association wrote in its brief.

Quoting McGirt v. Oklahoma Bar Association wrote, “Illegal acts, committed long enough and with sufficient force, are never enough to change the law. To hold otherwise would be to elevate the most blatant and ancient injustices above the law, both rewarding evil and defeating those who are right. “

The United States has until September 29 to respond to Vaello-Madero and the dozens of amicus briefs. Oral argument is not yet scheduled but will likely be in December or January, according to Neil Weare, founder of Equally American, the legal nonprofit association that advocates for equal rights for the 4 million Americans living. in American territories. The term of the High Court begins in October.

Amicus briefs and other documents relating to United States v. Vaello-Madero, as well as other cases seeking territorial rights, are available on the site Also American site.

Both briefs can be viewed here (VIBA Amicus Merits Brief) and here (USVI Amicus Brief in Vaello-Madero).


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Jacob C.

The author Jacob C.

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