Constitutional Law - Equal Protection - New York Court of Appeals Holds That State May Restrict Legal Alien Access to Disability Benefits

Article excerpt


Over the past decade, several states have responded to tightened budgets by proposing measures that restrict legal immigrants' access to public benefits. (1) In defending the constitutionality of such measures, states have cited Title IV of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (2) (PRWORA). (3) Title IV restricts legal alien access to a variety of federal benefits (4) but leaves states free to set their own eligibility criteria. (5) The statute's open-ended delegation to states has created a vexing constitutional problem for courts by testing the limits of the prevailing two-track system of judicial review for state and federal alienage measures. (6) Recently, in Khrapunskiy v. Doar, (7) the New York Court of Appeals sidestepped this doctrinal uncertainty by refusing to apply equal protection analysis to the New York State legislature's decision to restrict alien access to state disability payments. (8) The court's evasion was constitutionally unjustified. The court should have reached an equal protection analysis and applied strict scrutiny to the restrictive state alienage measure. This approach likely would have changed the outcome of the case. (9)

In response to the creation of the federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program in 1974, (10) New York replaced its existing program of disability benefits with a new state-funded supplement, Additional State Payments for Eligible Aged, Blind and Disabled Persons (11) (ASP). Though ASP was initially extended to both U.S. citizens and lawful aliens, (12) the New York legislature amended the program's eligibility requirements in 1998 (13) to exclude legal aliens rendered ineligible for SSI by Title IV. Lead plaintiff Boris Khrapunskiy was one of several indigent, elderly refugees who failed to obtain citizenship within seven years of arrival and whose SSI and ASP benefits were terminated as a result. (14) These refugees and other ineligible legal immigrants sued as a class, (15) arguing that the state's restrictions on alien access to ASP violated the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution, as well as provisions of the New York State Constitution. (16)

Judge Solomon of the Supreme Court of New York County invalidated the legislative amendment on state constitutional and equal protection grounds. (17) In upholding plaintiffs' equal protection challenge, Judge Solomon cited Graham v. Richardson, (18) which held that state classifications based on alienage are "inherently suspect and subject to close judicial scrutiny" (19) because aliens are a "prime example of a 'discrete and insular' minority." (20) The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court affirmed, rejecting the State's contention that a lesser standard of review should apply because New York was merely following a "uniform immigration rule" (21) articulated by Congress in PRWORA. (22) The court found that New York was not compelled by federal mandate to change ASP eligibility criteria but rather freely "cho[se] its own policy with respect to ... benefits for resident, indigent legal aliens." (23) Hence, New York could not benefit from the rational basis standard of review accorded to federal alienage classifications. (24)

The Court of Appeals reversed. (25) Writing for the majority, Judge Jones held that "[i]n conforming the New York statute to mirror the federal law, the State did not create a classification drawn along suspect lines." (26) Rather than proceed with an equal protection analysis, however, the court held that such an analysis was unnecessary, because ASP is not a "state program of aid." (27) The court observed that public assistance to the indigent elderly, blind, and disabled underwent a "federal takeover" in 1974 (28) and that ASP was created simply because "Congress required the states to provide a mandatory minimum supplement" (29) to SSI, subject to penalties to a state's Medicaid funding. …


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