May 16th, 2022 by Rieders Travis in Constitutional Law

United States v. Vaello-Madero, 2022 U.S. LEXIS 2094 (S. Ct. April 21, 2022) (Kavanaugh, J.)  The United States includes five Territories: American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, the U. S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. This case involves Puerto Rico, which became a U. S. Territory in 1898 in the wake of the Spanish-American War. For various historical and policy reasons, including local autonomy, Congress has not required residents of Puerto Rico to pay most federal income, gift, estate, and excise taxes. Congress has likewise not extended certain federal benefits programs to residents of Puerto Rico. The question presented is whether the equal-protection component of the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause requires Congress to make Supplemental Security Income benefits available to residents of Puerto Rico to the same extent that Congress makes those benefits available to residents of the States. In light of the text of the Constitution, longstanding historical practice, and this Court’s precedents, the answer is no. The deferential rational-basis test applies. And Puerto Rico’s tax status—in particular, the fact that residents of Puerto Rico are typically exempt from most federal income, gift, estate, and excise taxes—supplies a rational basis for likewise distinguishing residents of Puerto Rico from residents of the States for purposes of the Supplemental Security Income benefits program. See Torres, 435 U. S., at 5, n. 7, 98 S. Ct. 906, 55 L. Ed. 2d 65; Rosario, 446 U. S., at 652, 100 S. Ct. 1929, 64 L. Ed. 2d 587.  In devising tax and benefits programs, it is reasonable for Congress to take account of the general balance of benefits to and burdens on the residents of Puerto Rico. In doing so, Congress need not conduct a dollar-to-dollar comparison of how its tax and benefits programs apply in the States as compared to the Territories, either at the individual or collective level. See Torres, 435 U. S., at 3-5, 98 S. Ct. 906, 55 L. Ed. 2d 65, and n. 7; Rosario, 446 U. S., at 652, 100 S. Ct. 1929, 64 L. Ed. 2d 587. Congress need only have a rational basis for its tax and benefits programs. Congress has satisfied that requirement here. Vaello Madero’s position would usher in potentially far-reaching consequences. For one, Congress would presumably need to extend not just Supplemental Security Income but also many other federal benefits programs to residents of the Territories in the same way that those programs cover residents of the States. And if this Court were to require identical treatment on the benefits side, residents of the States could presumably insist that federal taxes be imposed on residents of Puerto Rico and other Territories in the same way that those taxes are imposed on residents of the States. Doing that, however, would inflict significant new financial burdens on residents of Puerto Rico, with serious implications for the Puerto Rican people and the Puerto Rican economy. The Constitution does not require that extreme outcome. While the historical evidence above is by no means conclusive, it offers substantial support for the proposition that, by conferring citizenship, the Citizenship Clause guarantees citizens equal treatment by the Federal Government with respect to civil rights. JUSTICE GORSUCH, concurring. A century ago in the Insular Cases, this Court held that the federal government could rule Puerto Rico and other Territories largely without regard to the Constitution. It is past time to acknowledge the gravity of this error and admit what we know to be true: The Insular Cases have no foundation in the Constitution and rest instead on racial stereotypes. They deserve no place in our law.

Attorney Cliff Rieders

Attorney Cliff RiedersCliff Rieders is a Nationally Board Certified Trial Lawyer practicing personal injury law. A large part of his practice involves multi-district litigation, including cases related to pharmaceuticals, vitamin supplements and medical devices. He is admitted in several state and federal courts, as well as the Supreme Court of the United States. Rieders is the past regional president of the Federal Bar Association and is a life member of the distinguished American Law Institute, which promulgates proposed rules adopted by many state courts. He is a past president of the Pennsylvania Association for Justice, formerly Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association. As a founder of the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority, he served on the Board for 15 years.

Not only has Rieders held many highly esteemed, leadership positions, he authored legislation related to the Patient Safety Authority and the Mcare Act, which governs medical and hospital liability actions in Pennsylvania. He authored texts upon which both practitioners and judges rely, including Pennsylvania Malpractice Laws and Forms, and Financial Responsibility Law Issues in Pennsylvania, the latter governing auto and truck collisions in Pennsylvania. In addition, he wrote several books on the practice of law in Pennsylvania regarding wrongful death and survivor actions, insurance bad faith, legal malpractice claims and worker rights, among others. Rieders also serves as a resource to practitioners as a regular speaker for Celesq, an arm of the world’s largest legal publisher, Thomson Reuters West Publishing.

As recognition of his wide range of contribution to his profession and of his dedication to protecting the rights of his clients, he received numerous awards, among them the George F. Douglas Amicus Curiae Award, the Milton D. Rosenberg Award, the B’nai B’rith Justice Award, and awards of recognition from the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers. [ Attorney Bio ]



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