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U.S. Supreme Court Allows Puerto Rico’s Exclusion From Welfare Program

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court this week 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.

U.S. Supreme Court Allows Puerto Rico's Exclusion From Welfare Program
Visitors walk their dogs across the Supreme Court Plaza during a storm on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., February 22, 2022. REUTERS/Tom Brenner/File Photo

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.

“Equal treatment of citizens should not be left to the vagaries of the political process,” Sotomayor wrote.

A provision extending SSI benefits to Puerto Rico is part of Democratic-backed social spending legislation that has stalled in Congress.

Jose Luis Vaello Madero, the disabled 67-year-old man at the center of the case, received SSI benefits when he lived in New York but lost eligibility when he moved to Puerto Rico in 2013. The U.S. government sued him in federal court in Washington in 2017 seeking more than $28,000 for SSI payments he received after moving to Puerto Rico.

“It is unfortunate the court failed to see the discrimination faced by the most needy Puerto Rican Americans whose only distinguishing feature is that they choose to remain in Puerto Rico, their home on U.S. soil. This is a devastating day for Mr. Vaello Madero and for Puerto Rico,” said Hermann Ferre, Vaello Madero’s lawyer.

The United States Justice Department declined comment.

Many Puerto Ricans have long complained that the island’s residents are treated worse than other Americans despite being U.S. citizens. Puerto Rico, which is not a state, is the most-populous of the U.S. territories, with about 3 million people.

SSI benefits are available to American citizens living in all 50 states, Washington, D.C. and the Northern Mariana Islands, but not the territories of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam.

The Supreme Court has been instrumental in defining the legal status of Puerto Ricans dating to a series of rulings starting more than a century ago called the Insular Cases, some suffused with racist language. Those rulings endorsed the notion that the people of newly acquired U.S. territories could receive different treatment than citizens living in U.S. states.

Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch in a separate opinion said the court in a future case should overturn the Insular Cases, saying they “rest on racial stereotypes” and “deserve no place in our law.”

Congress decided not to include Puerto Rico when it enacted the SSI program. Puerto Ricans are eligible for a different benefits program, called Aid to the Aged, Blind and Disabled, that allows for more local control but not as much federal funding.

The government’s appeal originally was filed by former President Donald Trump’s administration. Biden’s administration continued the appeal while also urging Congress to extend SSI to Puerto Rico.

—REUTERS

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Governor Bryan Congratulates Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson On Her Ascension To The U.S. Supreme Court

CHRISTIANSTED — Governor Albert Bryan issued the following statement congratulating Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson on her confirmation to the Supreme Court of the United States:

“I join the chorus of Americans in the Virgin Islands and across the nation in congratulating Judge Brown Jackson on becoming the first African American woman to become a Supreme Court Justice.

“Today marks another historic leap forward for this country, and I am proud as an American, and also as a father of two young women of color, to know that as we strive to make more perfect the American experience, that my daughters can realize and achieve anything.”

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Ownership of St. Thomian’s Impressionist Masterpiece In Hands Of Supreme Court

WASHINGTON — A California man and a Spanish museum locked in a dispute over a valuable impressionist masterpiece stolen by the Nazis should be able to agree on one thing, Justice Stephen Breyer said Tuesday during arguments in the case at the Supreme Court.

“Can everyone agree that this is a beautiful painting?” Breyer asked near the end of an hour of arguments. The painting is a streetscape, now worth millions, by French impressionist Camille Pissarro of St. Thomas.

The case itself is not directly about ownership of the painting but about how to decide the case, which has been going on since 2005. Lower courts had sided with the museum.

On the other side is San Diego resident David Cassirer. His great-grandmother Lilly Cassirer Neubauer, a German Jew, at one time owned the Pissarro oil painting. The 1897 piece, whose title translates to “Rue Saint-Honoré in the Afternoon, Effect of Rain,” is one of a series of 15 that Pissarro painted of a Paris street as seen from his hotel window.

In 1939, in order to get visas for herself and her husband to leave Germany, Neubauer was forced to surrender the piece to a Nazi art appraiser. She was paid about $360, well below the painting’s value, and the money went into an account she was blocked from accessing.

The painting changed hands a number of times since then but is now in the collection of a Spanish museum, the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum in Madrid, which has fought to retain it. It has been said to be worth more than $30 million.

Lower courts found the museum to be the lawful owner of the painting while also criticizing Spain for not living up to commitments to return Nazi-looted art.

Even if Cassirer wins at the high court, and he has the backing of the Biden administration, a lower court decision saying Spanish law applies in the case may mean he ultimately loses, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said.

“I believe the district court said that both California law and federal common law would adopt Spanish law. Why is it that we’re here if you lose under both?” she asked Cassirer’s attorney David Boies. Boies said a federal appeals court didn’t address the issue of California law.

Both Sotomayor and Boies were participating remotely, Sotomayor from her office — presumably because of coronavirus concerns — and Boies by telephone because of a positive coronavirus test.

Boies is the third attorney to argue by phone because of a positive test since the court returned to hearing arguments in person in October after more than a year and a half hearing arguments by phone. The court is not allowing the public to attend arguments, and arguing attorneys must test negative.

For many years the Pissarro painting was believed to have been lost or destroyed during the war. In 1958 Neubauer reached a monetary settlement with the German government, but she didn’t give up rights to try to pursue the painting if it turned up.

In fact, the painting had traveled to the United States, where it spent 25 years in the hands of different collectors before being purchased in 1976 by Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza of Lugano, Switzerland. In 1993, the painting was one of 775 works the baron sold to Spain for more than $300 million. The Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum, a renovated palace, houses the collection.

In 2000, Neubauer’s grandson Claude Cassirer discovered that the painting was not lost but on display in the museum. Spain rejected his attempts to get it back, however, and he ultimately sued in the United States. Claude Cassirer died in 2010. It’s his son David now fighting for the piece’s return.

The case is David Cassirer v. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation, 20-1566.

Pissarro was born in St. Thomas in 1830 when it was part of the Danish West Indies.

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Birthright Citizenship Case For U.S. Territories Heads To Supreme Court

WASHINGTON — Plaintiffs in Fitisemanu v. United States will take their case to the Supreme Court of the United States after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit denied their petition for review by the full court earlier this week.

Notably, Judges Robert Bacharach and Nancy Moritz dissented to the denial of review in a lengthy and scholarly opinion setting forth the constitutional basis for recognizing a right to citizenship for people born in U.S. territories, and the “exceptional importance” of this case.

The Fitisemanu plaintiffs had initially prevailed in their case, with Judge Clark Waddoups ruling at the district court level that Congress did not have the power to deny citizenship to individuals born in U.S. territories. On appeal, a divided panel of the 10th Circuit reversed 2-1, with each judge writing a separate opinion.

“It’s rare to see a 27-page dissent to the denial of full court review, which helps show how important it is for the Supreme Court to finally answer whether people born in U.S. territories have a constitutional right to citizenship, or if Congress can extend or restrict citizenship at will,” said Neil Weare, president and founder of Equally American, which represents the Fitisemanu plaintiffs and advocates for equality and civil rights for the 3.5 million residents of U.S. territories. “The dissenting judges were quick to point out the ‘exceptional importance’ of this case, and we hope that the Supreme Court will take up and answer this question.”

I was born on U.S. soil, have a U.S. passport, and pay thousands of dollars in taxes a year to the federal government. But based on a discriminatory federal law, I am denied recognition as a U.S. citizen. As a result, I cannot vote in state, federal, or even local elections, and I’m ineligible for many state and federal jobs. This isn’t just wrong, it’s unconstitutional,” said John Fitisemanu, who was born in American Samoa and for the past 20 years has lived in Utah. “If I have to take my case to the Supreme Court to be treated as a full and equal citizen, then that’s what I’m going to do.”

“American Samoa’s traditional leaders who transferred sovereignty over the islands to the United States had very good reason to believe that after this event anyone born in American Samoa were citizens of the United States,” said Charles Ala’ilima, an American Samoan attorney who also represents the Fitisemanu plaintiffs. “As noted by the two dissenting federal judges, the constitutional issues here are of great significance not just to American Samoans but to all the territories because Congress is purporting to deny a constitutional right to citizenship to people born in these areas despite their birth on sovereign U.S. soil.”

In a September filing, the U.S. Department of Justice argued against birthright citizenship for people born in U.S. territories by relying heavily on the controversial Insular Cases, which leading legal scholars like professor Sanford Levinson have called “central documents in the history of American racism.” This comes after the Supreme Court reiterated last year that the Insular Cases “should not be further extended.” And in November, Justice Neil Gorsuch repeatedly pressed the Justice Department at oral argument in U.S. v. Vaello Madero, “Why shouldn’t we just admit the Insular Cases were incorrectly decided?” Members of Congress have also called on DOJ to condemn the Insular Cases, and Congress is currently considering House Resolution 279, which rejects the Insular Cases and the racial views they espoused.

The American Samoan government has joined federal defendants in arguing that the question of citizenship in the territories is up to Congress. Meanwhile, current and former elected officials from Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands have argued as “friends of the court” in the case that individuals born in the territories have a constitutional right to citizenship.

The Fitisemanu plaintiffs have 90 days from the 10th Circuit’s ruling to file their petition to the U.S. Supreme Court. A decision by the Supreme Court on whether to take the case is expected in 2022.

More information about Fitisemanu v. United States, including court filings and orders, is available at https://www.equalrightsnow.org/fitisemanu.

An FAQ addressing concerns about the case raised by American Samoan elected officials is available at https://www.equalrightsnow.org/citizenship_faq. (PR)

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Attorney General To Make Oral Arguments Before United States Supreme Court Today

WASHINGTON — V.I. Attorney General Denise George reminds the public that Oral arguments before the United States Supreme Court in U.S. v. Vaello Madero begins at 11 am this morning.

The V.I. Department of Justice (VIDOJ) on behalf of the Government of the Virgin Islands,, filed an amicus brief in support of Madero, which requests the Supreme Court to strike down discrimination by the USA against residents of the Virgin Islands and other U.S. territories in Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits. U.S. Citizens residing in the Virgin Islands are prohibited from obtaining SSI benefits available to U.S. citizens on the mainland.

This case and its resulting decision will have a significant impact the residents of the Virgin Islands.

As background, Vaello-Madero, a citizen of the United States and born in Puerto Rico, had been living in New York state and receiving SSI benefits. When he later moved back to Puerto Rico, he was later denied these benefits solely because he changed his residence from New York to Puerto Rico—where, as in the V.I., citizens are not entitled to these benefits. SSI is the largest federal cash assistance program in the United States that provides monthly income assistance to people who (1) are disabled, blind, or elderly, and (2) have minimal or no income and few assets.

SSI is an essential lifeline for the nation’s most vulnerable populations. These benefits are not provided to citizens living in the Virgin Islands. “This, I believe, as a Virgin Islander, citizen of the United States, and Attorney General for this territory, is a wrong committed against our most vulnerable residents and must be righted. This is why we filed the Amicus brief,” said AG George.

You can tune in to the live broadcast at https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/live.aspx

And here’s SCOTUS Blog’s preview: https://www.scotusblog.com/2021/11/in-equal-protectionchallenge-court-will-review-puerto-ricos-exclusion-from-federal-safety-net-program/

Reportedly, audio and a transcript of the argument will also be available later in the day.