Courtroom will assessment Puerto Rico’s eligibility for federal advantages program

American flag and Puerto Rico flag against blue sky


By Amy Howe

at 11:29 am

The flags of the United States and Puerto Rico fly over San Juan (Arturo de la Barrera via Flickr)

The court issued orders from the judges’ private conference on Monday morning Friday, February 26. The judges added two merit cases, both of which related to social security benefits, to their earnings record for the next term.

The first case, United States v Vaello-Madero, is a major challenge for excluding Puerto Rican residents from eligibility for the Safety Income Program, which benefits poor people who are elderly or disabled. The plaintiff in the case, Jose Luis Vaello-Madero, was receiving SSI benefits while he was in New York, but the benefits were discontinued when officials learned he had moved to Puerto Rico to look after his wife, the had their own health problems. The United States later went to court to try to reclaim benefits paid to Vaello-Madero after he moved to Puerto Rico. Vaello-Madero countered that the omission of Puerto Rican residents from the program violated the constitution’s guarantee of equal protection.

The U.S. Circuit First Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, and the Justice Department appealed to the Supreme Court in early September 2020. In a petition from former Attorney General Jeffrey Wall, the DOJ told judges that the 1st Circuit decision “threatens” to cost the United States billions of dollars – up to $ 23 billion over the next decade. In addition, the government said the ruling could have implications for the treatment of Puerto Rican residents in other state benefit programs, such as the school feeding program and Medicaid.

Last month, Democratic lawmakers and religious leaders called on President Joe Biden to withdraw the lawsuit and allow residents of Puerto Rico to access SSI services, but Biden’s acting Attorney General Elizabeth Prelogar took no action on the case after replacing Wall. The judges granted the government’s petition on Monday. Without further developments, the case is expected to be heard orally in the autumn.

The judges also added a second case that brought benefits for the next term: Babcock v Saul, a lawsuit brought by a Michigan man who served for over three decades as a “two-tier technician” in the state’s National Guard. David Babcock held a military rank, wore uniform, and was posted to Iraq on active duty. However, depending on the work he did, he was paid either as a federal civil servant or as a member of the military. The question that the judges agreed with on Monday is whether the pensions for technicians with dual status are “a payment based solely on serving as a member of a uniformed service”, in the sense of a provision of the Social Security Act to ensure that retirees who receive pensions from two different systems, do not get a “godsend”.

The court challenged the acting attorney general in Torres against the Texas Department of Public Security, a lawsuit brought against the department by a former state troop officer who resigned from his job when the department had no shelter for a resulting respiratory illness provided his service as an army reservist in Iraq. A Texas state court ruled that the law Torres brought his lawsuit was the Uniform Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, which allows members of the armed forces to bring charges of discrimination based on their military service, unconstitutional. On Monday, the judges asked the acting attorney general about the views of the federal government, whether Congress was empowered to approve lawsuits against states even without their consent under its wartime violence. There is no time limit for the acting attorney general to submit her assignment.

The judges failed to respond to several high profile petitions they considered at the conference last week, including challenging the constitutionality of a Mississippi law banning almost all abortions after 15 weeks, a petition to review a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit Finding Former President Donald Trump violating the First Amendment by blocking people from his personal Twitter account, as well as the federal government’s petition the Boston Marathon case -Bombers to review Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, for whose death sentence the US Court of Appeals was sentenced, the 1st circuit put aside.

The judges will meet again for a private conference on Friday March 5th. Orders from this conference are expected on Monday, March 8th at 9:30 am

This article was originally published by Howe on the Court.