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Judge Gustavo Gelpí. (David Villafañe)

Judge Gustavo Gelpí dismissed yesterday a lawsuit filed by the US government against a Loíza resident regarding the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefit, with a decision that could open the door to further discussion on the political status of Puerto Rico in federal courts.

Gelpí ruled that José Luis Vaello Madero will not have to return $ 28,000 he received in monthly payments in SSI disability benefits after he moved from New York to Loíza in 2013, which only apply to residents in United States mainland, including Washington DC and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Puerto Rico has a program called Aid to the Aged, Blind and Disabled for people who have limited income and resources.

Congress legislated that that the benefit did not apply to residents of several territories, including Puerto Rico. US lawyers based their argument on the powers conferred by the Territorial Clause to Congress and on the fact that SSI is funded by federal income taxes that are not paid on the island.

Yesterday, the federal judge accepted Vaello´s motion for summary judgment alleging that his constitutional rights had been violated.

As for a clause in the Constitution that allows federal legislators to enact rules and regulations for U.S. territories, Gelpí argued that this clause "is not carte blanche for Congress to switch on and off at its convenience the fundamental constitutional rights to Due Process and Equal Protection enjoyed by a birthright United States citizen who relocates from a State to Puerto Rico."

Congress, likewise, cannot demean and brand said United States citizen while in Puerto Rico with a stigma of inferior citizenship to that of his brethren nationwide.

To hold otherwise would run afoul of the sacrosanct principle embodied in the Declaration of Independence that “All Men are Created Equal,” the judge added.

But aware that he cannot revoke U.S. Supreme Court decisions, which in 1978 and 1980 ruled in favor of the exclusion from SSI, Gelpí argued that “this Court, however, cannot simply bind itself to the legal status quo of 1980, and ignore important subsequent developments in the constitutional landscape,” and compared the need for changes in the same way that the U.S. Supreme Court decided “on Fifteenth Amendment grounds, racial classifications are equally impermissible in the Equal Protection content.”

Gelpí argued that in accordance with the U.S. Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, the denial of SSI disability benefits to United States citizens in Puerto Rico is unconstitutional as “a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution.”

“It is a violation of “basic due process” principles, as it inflicts an “injury and indignity” of a kind that denies “an essential part of the liberty protected by the Fifth Amendment,” said Gelpí and added that while “line drawing is necessary for Congress to pass social and economic legislation, it is never a valid reason for disparate treatment of United States citizen’s fundamental rights.”

He stated that it is in “the Court’s responsibility to protect these rights if the other branches do not.”

All United States citizens must trust that their fundamental constitutional rights will be safeguarded everywhere within the Nation, be in a State or Territory,” Gelpí stressed.

Impact

Constitutional lawyer Carlos Ramos González explained that, so far, the only effect of the decision is that Vaello Madero will not have to return $ 28,000.

Ramos González said that discrimination will continue until the law is changed or the Supreme Court rules something different after an appeal on previous cases and added that if there are no cases in district court “it will not get there.”

"On the other hand, it can have the effect of supporting arguments in other similar cases," he said.

He also believes that the decision may give way to other similar lawsuits, while some Puerto Ricans who have recently moved to Florida could try the same thing Vaello Madero did.

Meanwhile, the constitutional law professor Efrén Rivera Ramos thinks that it is a solid decision and that there are good arguments to defend it.

He considers a success that Gelpí was firm in the jurisprudence that leads the courts to be more demanding with “discrimination against certain groups” to argue that the “exclusion of Puerto Rico is not justified.

Rivera Ramos said he would have liked Gelpí to go further into that point but that this “will surely go to the Circuit Court of Appeals and we have to see what they decide there.”

New legislation

Yesterday, Resident Commissioner in Washington Jenniffer González welcomed Gelpí´s ruling and filed a bill to extend SSI benefits to Puerto Rico.

The bill is cosponsored by Puerto Rican Democratic Representatives José Serrano (New York) and Darren Soto (Florida), as well as the delegates of Samoa, Republican Amata Radewagen; Virgin Islands, Democrat Stacey Plaskett; Northern Mariana Islands, Democrat Gregory Kilili Sablan; and Guam, Democrat Michael San Nicolas.

"The territorial status of Puerto Rico has been the cause of discrimination against American citizens residing on the island by lowering American citizenship to a secondary category. The decision of the federal district court today is consistent with our claim," said Jenniffer González, who filed a brief of amicus curiae on the case.


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