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Supreme Court allows exclusion of Puerto Rican residents from disability benefits

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that Congress may continue to exclude Puerto Rican residents from a federal safety net program. It's a program that provides direct payments to poor, disabled and blind American citizens. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: In 1972, Congress established the Social Security Income program, SSI, to provide a minimum income for the neediest adults who are over 65, blind or disabled. The program was available only to residents living in the United States. Conspicuously left out were American citizens living in Puerto Rico and other territories. Challenging that exclusion was Jose Luis Vaello Madero. Born in Puerto Rico, he moved to New York, and after suffering a serious illness 25 years later, he began receiving SSI payments. Those payments continued for four years after he returned to Puerto Rico.

When the Social Security Administration realized he was no longer in New York, it not only cut off his benefits. It filed suit to recover $28,000 in payments he'd received after moving back to the island. Vaello Madero claimed that excluding citizens who live in Puerto Rico violated the Constitution's guarantee to equal protection under the law. Two lower courts agreed, but today the Supreme Court reversed those rulings. The vote was 8-1, with Justice Sonia Sotomayor the lone dissenter. Her parents were born in Puerto Rico.

The decision will have practical consequences, says Veronica Ferraiuoli, the deputy chief of staff for Puerto Rico's nonvoting member of Congress. Right now blind and disabled residents of Puerto Rico will continue to get benefits of about $84 a month, she says, whereas the benefits under SSI are about 10 times as much.

VERONICA FERRAIUOLI: Over 30,000 people would receive about $800 of benefit a month.

TOTENBERG: Writing for the court majority, Justice Brett Kavanaugh said that because island residents are exempt from most federal income taxes, that's a rational basis for excluding them from eligibility for SSI payments. Sotomayor, in a tart written dissent, replied that if Congress can exclude citizens from safety net programs on grounds that they don't pay sufficient taxes, the residents of Vermont, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana and Alaska could similarly be excluded. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAZZY'S "A LITTLE MORE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.