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Supreme Court preview: prayer during execution, Supplementary Security Income

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Supreme Court hears a case this week about the American empire. The question is whether federal law applies equally to those parts of the United States that are not states. A man moved from New York state to Puerto Rico to care for his wife. He continued receiving disability benefits from the Social Security Administration, and then the federal government demanded the money back.

Let's discuss this with Garrett Epps, who is legal affairs editor at the Washington Monthly and a professor of law at the University of Oregon. Welcome, sir.

GARRETT EPPS: Hi.

INSKEEP: Thanks for getting up early on the Pacific coast. What is the deal with the family at the heart of this case?

EPPS: Well, Jose Luis Vaello-Madero is a native of Puerto Rico. But in 1985, he moved to New York and lived there until 2013. So that's, you know, 28 years, I guess. In 2012, as a result of some health problems he developed, he began drawing what's called Supplemental Security Income - that is, payments for disability or blindness or certain health conditions...

INSKEEP: Right.

EPPS: ...And then moved back to Puerto Rico the next year to take care of his ailing wife there and continued receiving his SSI payments until the Social Security Administration became aware that he was no longer living in New York. And they said, you have to pay us back $28,000 in benefits we've paid you because, under the statute, Puerto Rico is not, quote, "part of the United States." And this gave rise to this lawsuit. Mr. Vaello-Madero says, I shouldn't have to pay this money back. I should - I'm an American citizen. I should receive my payments just like anyone else. And the federal government says, no, we've always treated Puerto Rico differently, and Puerto Ricans don't pay federal income tax and various things like that. So...

INSKEEP: OK, OK. I get that Puerto Ricans pay different taxes, but it is part of the United States. You're saying the law says it's not part of the United States or not treated as part of the United States. Is that constitutional? Is there a higher law here that would be used to overturn that law potentially?

EPPS: Well, Puerto Rico has never really fit into the Constitution. The Constitution doesn't have an empire clause. And when the United States took over Puerto Rico after the Spanish-American War, the court struggled mightily to decide what was the right way to treat them and were very frank and said, these people speak Spanish; they're not like us; they don't have the same background; we can't really make them part of the United States. And so they created, in essence, this sort of second-class status called denizenship, which was later made into citizenship. But the idea still is that the federal government can treat Puerto Rico differently in all kinds of ways. And the question in this case is, does that extend to treating individuals differently, or does the equal protection clause protect Mr. Vaello-Madero?

INSKEEP: Oh, equal protection clause of the Constitution - you're supposed to have equal protection...

EPPS: Of the laws.

INSKEEP: ...Under the law. I believe the lower courts have ruled in his favor. Suppose the Supreme Court did. What is at stake beyond his $28,000 or so in benefits?

EPPS: Well, SSI is a pretty sizable federal program. And you know, estimates I've seen are that over a 10-year period, if SSI were to begin paying the benefits to residents of Puerto Rico who are eligible, it could be as much as $23 billion.

INSKEEP: Wow.

EPPS: And that's a number that probably gets the court's attention.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about one other court the - one other case the court is going to consider this week. This is a Texas man on death row. His name is John Ramirez, and he says that he was denied a vocalization of prayer and laying of hands as part of a death penalty. What's going on there?

EPPS: Well, until about 2019, it was pretty routine in Texas. You could have your spiritual adviser or your pastor, at least, in the death chamber. And that person would pray aloud and touch, often touch on the leg or the knee, the inmate as execution took place. It was designed to be comforting, and it was a religious ritual that people believed to have a lot of significance. In about 2019, Texas changed that rule. First, they said no one could have an adviser. That ran into some constitutional problems, so they said, well, you can have an adviser, but he can't speak, and he can't touch you. And Mr. Ramirez says, you know, this - there's no real reason for this other than pettiness, spiteness because, for decades, Texas allowed this.

INSKEEP: And now it will go before the Supreme Court to find out if it can be allowed in his case. Garrett Epps, it was a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

EPPS: Enjoyed it.

INSKEEP: He is legal affairs editor at the Washington Monthly and a professor of law at the University of Oregon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.