WASHINGTON — The immediate question for the Supreme Court justices at an argument on Tuesday was whether Congress was free to exclude residents of Puerto Rico from a Social Security program that provides monthly cash payments to older, blind and disabled people who cannot support themselves.
Looming over that question was the larger issue of Puerto Rico’s status as a territory, not a state. Its residents are U.S. citizens but cannot vote in federal elections and generally do not pay federal income taxes. Much of the argument concerned the implications of those facts for treating recipients of Social Security benefits differently depending on where they live.
The benefits, called Supplemental Security Income, are available to U.S. citizens in the 50 states, the District of Columbia and the Northern Mariana Islands, but not in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whose parents were from Puerto Rico, said that was fundamentally unfair.
“Puerto Ricans are citizens, and the Constitution applies to them,” she said. “Their needy people are being treated different than the needy people in the 50 states.”
The case, United States v. Vaello-Madero, No. 20-303, concerned Jose Luis Vaello-Madero, a disabled man who received the benefits when he lived in New York and continued to get them after he moved to Puerto Rico in 2013. When the Social Security Administration became aware of the move, it sought repayment of the benefits Mr. Vaello-Madero had received since then, eventually suing him for about $28,000.
Mr. Vaello-Madero said the law violated his right to equal protection, winning in the lower courts.
President Biden said in June that excluding Puerto Rico from the program was “inconsistent with my administration’s policies and values” and called on Congress to address the matter.
On Tuesday, though, the Justice Department defended the law in the Supreme Court.
Curtis E. Gannon, a lawyer for the federal government, said that Congress had made a rational choice in excluding Puerto Rico given its residents’ general exemption from paying federal income taxes.
Hermann Ferré, a lawyer for Mr. Vaello-Madero, said there should be uniform standards for government benefits and noted that Puerto Rico’s residents lack political power.
He asked the court to overrule a series of early-20th-century decisions known as the Insular Cases, which ruled that territories acquired by the United States were not automatically entitled to all of the Constitution’s protections.