Claims of discrimination against Puerto Rico, for being excluded from some federal programs, achieved a major victory yesterday, in the U.S. District Court in San Juan.
Judge William Young denied a motion filed by the U.S. government to dismiss a lawsuit presented by 10 island residents alleging violation of their constitutional right to equal protection of laws, as they were not eligible for different federal benefits that residents in other jurisdictions can access.
They request access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicare Part D subsidies and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Residents of the states, Washington D.C., Guam, and the Virgin Islands have access to all these benefits.
"This is a fascinating case," said U.S. District judge William Young, of the Massachusetts, during the first hearing, which he held via teleconference, as he serves a "visiting judge.”
Katleyin Sullivan, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, and Daniel Reis, a federal Justice Department attorney, representing the U.S. government, also participated via teleconference.
In defending the motion for dismissal, Reis reiterated the statement made by the U.S. government in other discrimination cases against residents of Puerto Rico, indicating that Congress has the power to legislate different in economic issues.
He stressed that the rational analysis for excluding the island is based on the fact that residents of Puerto Rico do not pay federal income taxes.
As for Sullivan's statement, the judge said his court had precedents from the U.S. Supreme Court that had upheld the exclusion.
Sullivan argued that the exclusion was based on different controversies that took place 40 years ago, and that since then, "the laws have evolved.”
She added that those cases were not related to equal protection of laws claim for the island´s residents, but to the right to travel, and they did not address SNAP or Medicare Part D programs.
She also noted that in the last four decades there have been new laws on citizens' rights and decisions by the federal Supreme Court itself with interpretations of what should be a rational basis for exclusion. She mentioned, for example, the ruling that enabled same-sex marriage.
Meanwhile, the attorney said that if the lawsuit were not dismissed, they could produce a record of facts and data to refute the application of previous cases, including misinterpretations by the Supreme Court pointed out by Representative Nydia Velázquez, who joined the case as an amicus curiae (friend of the court).
She said she will also argue that Puerto Rico contributes to the U.S. Treasury with more than $3 billion in federal taxes annually, an figure that is greater than what other territories, whose residents receive some of those benefits, pay.
When the judge said he had to be deferential to Congress’ discretion to set "limits," Sullivan said that courts can establish them, just as they can't exclude someone for the letter in his name or the date of birth.
“We understand that he is, in fact, in a position to determine whether it is rational to give benefits like SSI only to residents of some territories.
Young ruled that "the motion is dismissed," so he preliminarily scheduled the trial for April 2020.
The judge said that the case is significant and that he understands that this court has jurisdiction, that the plaintiffs have standing and that there is cause for action.