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White House, DOJ Diverge in Supreme Court Benefits Case (1)

June 7, 2021, 6:29 PMUpdated: June 7, 2021, 9:14 PM

The White House expressed public disagreement with a provision in federal law that imposes limits on aid for the poor that the Justice Department plans to defend at the U.S. Supreme Court.

In an unusual statement Monday on a high court matter, the White House explained the divergence of its policy preferences with a section of the Social Security Act that excludes elderly, blind or disabled low income residents of Puerto Rico from receiving Supplemental Security Income benefits.

“This provision is inconsistent with my administration’s policies and values,” President Joe Biden said.

“I believe that Puerto Rico residents should be able to receive SSI benefits, just like their fellow Americans in all 50 states and Washington D.C.,” Biden said. “I call on Congress to amend the Social Security Act to extend these benefits to residents of Puerto Rico.”

In United States v. Vaello-Madero, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit said that the “categorical exclusion of otherwise eligible” residents of Puerto Rico from receiving SSI violates the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

The Trump administration brought the case to the Supreme Court in 2020, pointing to “the unique tax status of Puerto Rico” as a reason the law doesn’t violate equal protection, including that its residents generally don’t pay federal income tax.

Duty to Defend

In United States v. Vaello-Madero to be heard next term, the White House said the Justice Department will argue in favor of the law, noting that it “has a longstanding practice of defending the constitutionality of federal statutes, regardless of policy preferences.”

But the agency’s “duty to defend” isn’t ironclad. Previous administrations have occasionally refused to defend laws, saying there are no reasonable arguments to be made on their behalf or they’re clearly unconstitutional.

The Justice Department has refused to defend dozens of cases since 1975, according to a 2012 article in the William & Mary Law Review. Most involve laws that are “clearly unconstitutional.”

The Obama administration declined to defend the Defense of Marriage Act. The law signed by Democrat Bill Clinton in the 1990s defined marriage for federal purposes as between a man and woman.

Attorney General Eric Holder said in 2011 that the Justice Department wouldn’t defend the law in court after the White House concluded it was unconstitutional. Members of Congress stepped in to defend it but the Supreme Court struck it down in 2013’s United States v. Windsor.

More recently, the Trump administration refused to defend the Affordable Care Act, saying that a congressional change to the landmark health law undermined the Supreme Court’s reasoning for upholding portions of it in 2012. The case, California v. Texas, is awaiting a decision by the justices in the coming weeks.

Court Flips

The Biden statement was notable in part because the White House doesn’t usually comment on ongoing litigation.

The current Justice Department—like others before it—has changed positions in a handful of Supreme Court cases that it inherited from the Trump administration. These include challenges to border wall funding and labor union access. It has stuck with Trump positions in other immigration matters as well as the death penalty. The public typically becomes aware of changes in court filings.

Biden was criticized in April for publicly saying while the jury deliberated the fate of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin in the George Floyd murder case that he hoped it would come to the “right verdict.” Chauvin was convicted of murder.

(Updates with information about previous refusals to defend federal statutes.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson in Washington at krobinson@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Seth Stern at sstern@bloomberglaw.com; John Crawley at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com