WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a bid to extend a federal program offering benefits to low-income elderly, blind and disabled people to residents of Puerto Rico, finding that Congress had the authority to prevent those living in the American territory from receiving the assistance.
The justices ruled 8-1 in favor of President Joe Biden’s administration, reversing a lower court’s ruling that a 1972 decision by Congress to exclude Puerto Rico from the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program violated a U.S. Constitution requirement that laws apply equally to everyone.
The ruling denies the welfare benefits to an estimated 300,000 people on the Caribbean island who otherwise might qualify. The federal government has said an expansion covering Puerto Rico would have cost $2 billion a year.
“Enough of this colonial status that discriminates against us and affects our quality of life. The only and the best solution is statehood,” Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood governor, said in a statement.
Puerto Rico’s status is a divisive issue on the island, with some favoring remaining a territory while others push for statehood or even independence from the United States.
The ruling, authored by conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh, found that Congress acted validly under a constitutional provision letting lawmakers treat territories differently than states.
Kavanaugh said a ruling extending benefits to Puerto Rico could have “far-reaching consequences” inflicting additional financial burdens on its residents – including that they be required to pay federal income tax, which they do not currently do.
“The Constitution does not require that extreme outcome,” Kavanaugh wrote.
Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whose parents were from Puerto Rico, was the sole dissenter. Sotomayor pointed out that as the island does not have voting representation in Congress, its people cannot rely on Congress to recognize their rights.