Justice for All?

June 27, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the unequal treatment of Americans in Puerto Rico.

The United States government, this week, in the U.S. District Court in San Juan, defended the disparate treatment and provision of federal program services available on the mainland, but not in Puerto Rico, such as Supplemental Social Security (SSI). The Justice Department, at the beginning of the week, filed a motion to dismiss, primarily for lack of jurisdiction, a lawsuit in which eight residents of Puerto Rico claim access to food assistance benefits, Medicare, and SSI. In its response, the Justice Department asserted that equal protection does not obligate the federal government to treat Puerto Rico as if it were a state, referencing a 1980 decision in Harris v. Rosario finding the U.S. Constitution granted Congress plenary powers over U.S. territories such as the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico—meaning that discrimination may occur if it is on a rational basis. Now, in Sixta Gladys Peña Martínez v. U.S. Secretary of Health, eight plaintiffs have asserted claims to have access to the benefits of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which operates in the states and Washington, D.C., and to Medicare Part D and SSI. The in the federal response, signed by interim Assistant Secretary Chad Readler and U.S. San Juan prosecutor Rosa Emilia Rodriguez, the Justice Department is arguing  that the complaints regarding SSI and Medicare should be dismissed, because the plaintiffs did not exhaust administrative procedures. With regard to SNAP benefits, the federal government maintained that the plaintiffs have not been able to demonstrate that they would have access to that program if they resided in any of the 50 states, Washington D.C., Guam, or the U.S. Virgin Islands.

In the case of Ms. Peña Martínez, the Justice Department has asserted that she claims she received $198 dollars in SNAP food assistance when she lived in New York, and that in her current residence in Puerto Rico, she receives $154. According to the Department, Ms. Peña Martínez did not specify how much additional money she may have received in recent months due to the special allocation of $1.27 million in SNAP funds made available to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria—assistance which was one-time help. Thus, the Department claimed the federal decision from the Supplemental Social Security (SSI) program was “rational,” because Puerto Ricans do not pay federal income taxes—asserting that the court had to find the U.S. position to be “constitutional.” The Department, referencing the Harris and Secretary of Health cases, asserted the sole contributory status of Puerto Rico and the cost of treating Puerto Rico as a state for the purpose of determining the allocation of funds under SSI , part D of Medicare and SNAP, constituted “a rational basis for the actions of the Congress,” adding that these additional costs to the U.S. Treasury provided, at a minimum, “a reasonably conceivable state of affairs that could provide a rational basis” for its actions.