Supreme Court Overturns State Welfare Laws Against New Residents


WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that a state may not treat welfare recipients who recently moved from another state differently than it treats its long-time residents.

The 7-2 ruling in Saenz v. Roe strikes down a provision of California law that restricted welfare recipients, for the first year of residence, to the amount of monthly cash assistance they would have received in their old state, if that sum was lower.

Under the law, one plaintiff who moved to California from Oklahoma would have received a monthly cash allowance of $341, far lower than California's benefit of $641, until she and her family had lived in the state for more than a year.

The ruling affects at least 14 states.

Legal challenges led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California had kept California's law in limbo. No family actually received a lower cash benefit after moving to California from a less generous state.

In his opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens declared the law discriminatory and an unconstitutional violation of every citizen's 'right to travel.'

"Citizens of the United States, whether rich or poor, have the right to choose to be citizens 'of the state wherein they reside,'" Stevens wrote, quoting the 14th Amendment. "The states, however, do not have any right to select their citizens."

Stevens said the law improperly classified recipients based on their length of residency in California and on their state of prior residence. "Neither the duration of respondents' California residence, nor the identity of their prior states of residence, has any relevance to their need for benefits."

The Supreme Court decision also negates a provision of the 1996 federal welfare law, under which Congress specifically authorized the state statutes.

Under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, Congress transferred most of the authority over the nation's welfare system to the states. The law freed the states to design and run individually tailored welfare programs within broad federal guidelines.

The prospect of wide variations in generosity across states worried both proponents and opponents of the new welfare system. Opponents feared states would engage in a "race to the bottom" that they would cut their cash benefits to encourage poorer residents to move elsewhere. Conversely, some states worried their higher benefits would attract a flood of poor migrants from other states.

Congress included in the welfare reform act provisions to deter states from sharply curtailing their generosity, while also given them a tool to discourage immigration. One provision specifically allowed states to impose on new residents, for up to 12 months, the welfare rules of the state from which they had moved.

The Supreme Court said Monday that explicit approval from Congress makes no difference. "Congress may not authorize the States to violate the Fourteenth Amendment," Stevens wrote.

Stevens also dismissed California's argument that the state had the right to limit benefits for purely financial reasons. California had argued the provision enabled it to save about $10.9 million a year.

"The state's legitimate interest in saving money provides no justification for its decision to discriminate among equally eligible citizens," Stevens wrote.

Six justices, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer concurred with the Stevens opinion.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas dissented.

Rehnquist called California's law a "good-faith residency requirement," similar to separate tuition rates for in-state and out-of-state university students.

"As states like California revamp their total welfare packages... they should have the authority and flexibility to ensure their new programs are not exploited," Rehnquist wrote.

Saenz v. Roe extends a 1969 ruling that prohibited states from denying all welfare benefits to new residents. In Shapiro v. Thompson, the Supreme Court ruled that Connecticut, the District of Columbia and Pennsylvania had violated the Constitution by denying welfare assistance to residents of less than one year.

Yesterday's ruling affects at least 14 other states: Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin.


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