A federal judge in the District Court of Puerto Rico has ruled in Pena Martinez v. US Department of Health and Human Services that the federal government’s exclusion of Puerto Rico residents from three major social benefits programs is an unconstitutional violation of equal protection.
This important ruling follows on the heels of the First Circuit Court of Appeals’ historic ruling in United States v. Vaello Madero earlier this year, which held that residents of Puerto Rico could not be excluded from Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and a similar decision in Schaller v. U.S. Social Security Administration, which ruled the denial of SSI benefits in Guam unconstitutional.
The U.S. Supreme Court is likely to take up these issues, which impact nearly 4 million Americans living in five U.S. territories.
“Federal courts have increasingly come to recognize that constitutional rights cannot depend on whether someone lives in a state or territory,” said Neil Weare, President and Founder of Equally American, which advocates for equality and civil rights for residents of the territories. “No citizen should have to choose between receiving the basic benefits they need to survive and being able to live in the place they call home. The court today reiterated that this kind of discrimination is not just wrong, but unconstitutional,” Weare added.
The court ruled in favor of nine plaintiffs who would qualify for federal benefits programs if instead of living in Puerto Rico they lived in one of the fifty states. The decision expands on Vaello Madero, addressing not only SSI benefits, but also the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as “food stamps,” and the Medicare Part D Low-Income Subsidy (LIS), which helps cover the cost of a prescription drug plan.
The court rejected the United States argument that it should limit its ruling to the nine plaintiffs in the case and allow the government to continue discriminating against other residents of Puerto Rico that would be eligible for the programs. Instead the court issued an injunction that applies across Puerto Rico, providing a 60-day administrative stay for the federal government to implement its ruling, although its ruling will apply immediately to the nine plaintiffs.
The federal government is almost certain to appeal both the merits of the case and the scope of the injunction to the First Circuit, and from there the Supreme Court.
If these issues are taken up by the Supreme Court, a decision would likely impact the constitutionality of federal benefits programs not just in Puerto Rico, but other territories as well.
“If Pena Martinez, Vaello Madero, and Schaller are upheld, it could mean billions more in direct federal funding to the most vulnerable residents of U.S. territories,” Weare said. “This is critical support that communities across the United State rely on, and territories should be no different. Equality in federal programs for residents of the territories is a matter of basic dignity and justice.”
(Equally American news release)