Does the post-9/11 GI Bill limit education benefits for a veteran who qualifies for both the Montgomery and Post-9/11 GI Bills, by requiring that the veteran first exhaust their Montgomery benefits or make a 38 U.S.C. § 3327(a) election between educational benefits, or is a veteran entitled to both benefits due to two distinct service periods?
This case asks the Supreme Court to decide whether the Federal Circuit erred in holding that a veteran who switched from using Montgomery GI Bill educational benefits to Post–9/11 GI Bill benefits is limited to only accessing his remaining Montgomery benefits. Petitioner James Rudisill asserts that the Federal Circuit improperly reads § 3327(a) as mandatory and wrongly applies it to certain classes of veterans in a manner not intended by Congress, and in conflict with the pro-veteran canon. The respondent, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough, counters that § 3327(a) remains elective and is applicable to all veterans, and that Rudisill’s invocation of the pro-veteran canon is improper. This case could impact the educational benefits of millions of veterans, as well as the application of the veterans’ canon, an interpretive tool by which courts assume Congress intends interpretations of ambiguous statutory text that favor veterans.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether a veteran who has served two separate and distinct periods of qualifying service under the Montgomery GI Bill and the Post–9/11 GI Bill is entitled to receive a total of 48 months of education benefits as between both programs, without first exhausting the Montgomery benefit in order to obtain the more generous Post–9/11 benefit.
Appellee James Rudisill (“Rudisill”) is a veteran who served in active–duty three separate times, amounting to almost 8 years of active service between 2000 and 2011. Rudisill v. McDonough (“Rudisill”) at 3. Rudisill’s service from 2000 to 2002 qualified him for 36 months of Montgomery education benefits under 38 U.S.C. § 3011(a)(1)(A). Id. at 9. Rudisill’s later, separate service period qualified him for post–9/11 educational benefits under 38 U.S.C. § 3311(b). Id. at 2–3. He used 25 months and 14 days of his benefits to complete his undergraduate education, starting in 2003. Id. at 3.
In 2011, the Yale Divinity School accepted Rudisill, who filed an online application for Department of Veterans Affairs educational benefits. Id. Rudisill applied for Post–9/11 benefits and acknowledged that the available benefits would be limited to those still available to him under his Montgomery entitlement. Id. The 38 U.S.C. § 3327(d)(2) statute limits the months of educational assistance for veterans who switch from Montgomery benefits to the Post–9/11 program to the unused amount of their Montgomery benefits. Id. Accordingly, the Department of Veterans Affairs issued Rudisill a certificate certifying his entitlement to 10 months and 16 days of educational benefits, which is the amount he had left in his Montgomery entitlement. Id. at 4.
Rudisill appealed the decision to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, seeking the full amount of potential educational benefits under the Post–9/11 program, which would amount to 22 months and 16 days. Id. at 3–4. The Board of Veterans’ Appeals agreed with Rudisill, holding that the Montgomery entitlement limit did not apply to veterans, like Rudisill, with multiple periods of qualifying service, therefore entitling him to a full 48 months of benefits. Id. at 4. The Board of Veterans Appeals reasoned that the language of § 3327(d)(2) was ambiguous, and that Congress intended veterans, like Rudisill, with separate periods of qualifying service, and who were entitled to receive the Montgomery benefits, to receive the benefits of both programs. Id.
Denis McDonough, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, appealed the Board of Veterans’ Appeals’ decision to the Federal Circuit. Id. After a split panel of the Federal Circuit affirmed the Board of Veterans’ Appeal’s decision, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs petitioned for rehearing en banc. Id. The Federal Circuit accepted the petition, vacating the prior decision and remanding for another panel opinion. Id. The en banc Federal Circuit reversed the panel’s opinion, ruling that Mr. Rudisill was only entitled to the thirty–six months of his unused Montgomery benefits. Id. at 7. The Federal Circuit analyzed the statutory language and found that the plain meaning of § 3327(d)(2) applied to Rudisill. Id. at 6. The Federal Circuit disagreed with the Board of Veterans Appeals decision and held that Congress intended to limit the total amount of benefits available when using these programs, including limiting benefits for veterans with multiple periods of service. Id. Rudisill appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted certiorari on June 26, 2023. Brief for Petitioner, James Rudisill at 5.
INTERPRETING THE STATUTORY LANGUAGE OF § 3327(a) AND § 3222
James Rudisill (“Rudisill”) argues that because § 3327(a) of the post–9/11 GI Bill specifies that veterans “may elect to receive” post–9/11 benefits, the decision of a veteran to take such benefits must be read as voluntary. Brief for Petitioner, James Rudisill (“Rudisill”) at 43–44. Under § 3327(a) veterans can if they wish, convert the Montgomery benefits to the more beneficial Post-9/11 benefits. Id. at 46. However, veterans like Rudisill, who has two periods of distinct benefit-qualifying service, do not need to elect under the “may” language of the statute to receive Post-9/11 benefits, as they are already entitled to do so due to their second period of service. Id. at 46–47. Rudisill also contends that the statute falls under the broader purpose of § 3322, to bar duplicative educational benefits for veterans engaging in a single period of service. Id. at 50. Furthermore, the related § 3322(d) includes “in the case of” language that infers that veterans with separate qualifying periods of service would not need to coordinate benefits, as they are entitled to both periods. Id. at 50, 52. Rudisill argues that the Federal Circuit’s interpretation of the statute, requiring that veterans make the election in order to receive any post–9/11 benefits if they have any Montgomery benefits remaining, incorrectly converts what is a clearly discretionary decision into a mandatory one. Id. at 46.
Denis R. McDonough, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs (“Secretary”), argues that Rudisill’s litigation of the word “may” is irrelevant. Brief for the Respondent, Denis R. McDonough Secretary of Veterans Affairs (“Secretary”), at 12–13. Electing to receive post–9/11 benefits is discretionary; put simply, in not electing to receive post–9/11 benefits, a veteran would be electing to not receive post–9/11 benefits. Id. To read the statute as providing post–9/11 benefits to veterans who did not elect to receive them would render the words of the statute meaningless as a whole. Id. The Secretary further contends that their position is supported by the language of § 3322(a), which Rudisill concedes binds his petition, that a veteran eligible for multiple benefits “shall elect” which benefits they wish to exercise their right to. Id. The Secretary asserts that by invoking the election, Rudisill made a fully discretionary and informed decision. Id. at 17–18. The Secretary argues that § 3327(a) specifies that among the veterans it applies to are those who are a) eligible for Montgomery benefits, b) have only partially used up their Montgomery eligibility, and c) have invoked § 3327(a). Id. at 12. The Secretary argues that Rudisill meets all of these components, and is thus subject to the limitations of § 3327(d)(2), limiting his eligibility for post–9/11 benefits to an amount equal to his unused Montgomery eligibility. Id. at 15–16. The Secretary further argues that Rudisill fails to properly define “separate and distinct qualifying periods of service” as a legal term, and neither does the statute, because it makes no such distinction in terms of what veterans it applies to. Id. at 18–19. As neighboring statutory provisions do make distinctions between periods of service, the Secretary argues that it is inappropriate to read such a distinction into the statute in this provision. Id. 19–20. The Secretary contends that Rudisill’s theory cannot be reconciled with the statute’s coordination clause in § 3322(d), which the Secretary reads as applying to veterans who qualify for both Montgomery benefits and post–9/11 benefits. Id. at 21.
HIGHLIGHTING CONGRESSIONAL INTENT TO UNDERSTAND STATUTORY PURPOSE
Rudisill argues that surrounding statutory provisions make clear that congressional intent for § 3327(a) was to merely create the option of converting Montgomery benefits into post–9/11 benefits. Brief for Rudisill at 48. According to Rudisill, Congress merely wanted Montgomery–era veterans who were now eligible for post–9/11 benefits to be able to claim those benefits and recoup Montgomery–era contributions. Id. at 49. Limitations put in place in these provisions were merely intended to prevent veterans from double–dipping, which is not the case for veterans who qualify for eligibility due to two separate periods of service. Id. at 52–54. Thus, in Rudisill’s view, language such as “in the case of” in § 3322(d) suggests that § 3327(a) was not intended to apply to Rudisill and similarly situated veterans. Id. at 50–51. Additionally, Rudisill suggests that, under this reading of the statute, veterans’ options become unfairly limited, in some cases even more so than for non–veteran beneficiaries, a consequence so absurd that it could not have been Congress’s intent. Id. at 55–56.
The Secretary states that the plain-meaning of the statute should be followed, rather than congressional intent. Brief for Secretary at 27. The Secretary contends that such overreliance on interpreting congressional intent allows the courts to overstretch their judicial authority and infringe on the legislative role of congress. Id. The Secretary contends that a plain-meaning approach is particularly valid here because the question is related to government benefits, which fully fall under the authority of Congress. Id. The Secretary additionally argues that the consequences of limiting veteran’s options are not obviously contrary to congress’s intent, as it could be done in the interest of cost, or administrative simplicity. Id. at 29. The Secretary finds that all individuals, whether veterans or not, are treated equally under the plain meaning of the statute. Id. at 30–31.
PRO–VETERAN CANON AS AN ESSENTIAL TOOL OF STATUTORY INTERPRETATION
James Rudisill contends that a succession of prior case law favors pro-veteran canon. According to Boone v. Lightner, benefits statutes must be “liberally construed” in favor of veterans and veterans law must be read as what Fishgold v. Sullivan Drydock & Repair Corp. terms “an organic whole” with each individual statute given “as liberal a construction for the benefit of the veteran as harmonious interplay of the separate provisions permits.” Brief for Rudisill at 58. Furthermore, under Henderson ex rel. Henderson v. Shinseki, Rudisill argues, any ambiguities in such statutes should be in favor of veterans and against “harsh penalties” for veterans. Id at 58–59. Thus, although Rudisill argues that there are no ambiguities in the statute and that the statute must be read in their favor, Rudisill posits that even if there were ambiguities in the statute, the pro–veteran canon dictates that such ambiguities must be resolved in veterans’ favor. Id.
The Secretary acknowledges the pro–veteran canon. Brief for Secretary at 31–32. However, the Secretary finds that the pro-veteran canon is limited in application, as per Arellano v. McDonough, whereas this canon “cannot overcome text and structure” and is only applied, under Brown v. Gardner, in cases of “interpretive doubt.” Id. at 31. The Secretary argues that no such doubt is present here, and that as such canons are mere guidelines, the existence of the canon does not provide sufficient grounds to support Rudisill’s claims. Id. The Secretary further argues that Petitioner’s interpretation is not purely pro–veteran, and points to Petitioner’s concession that their interpretation would deprive veterans with multiple periods of service of extra benefits provided by § 3327(f) and (g). Id. Thus, the Secretary articulates, reliance on the pro–veteran canon, even if one reads the statute as ambiguous, is still inappropriate. Id.
THE IMPORTANCE OF EDUCATIONAL BENEFITS FOR VETERANS
The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States (“VFW”), in support of Rudisill, argues that the government’s interpretation of these statutes would reduce veterans’ access to education. Brief of Amicus Curiae Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States (“VFW”), in Support of Petitioner at 5. VFW describes how education benefits are necessary because they help veterans reacclimate to society more quickly and easily. Id. at 5. VFW explains how mentally taxing military service is and highlights the issues that many returning veterans face, including disability, suicide, low income, stress, and alcohol abuse. Id. at 6. VFW emphasizes the ways education can ease the transition back to civilian life for veterans, citing statistics that college–educated veterans earn higher incomes and have easier processes of reintegration. Id. at 10. VFW contends that veteran benefits fall under a pattern of historical precedence of rewarding veterans for their service. Id. at 11–13.
The Secretary argues that it could be harmful to change the law based on speculation about the specific ways Congress intended to help veterans. Brief for Respondent, Denis R. McDonough Secretary of Veterans Affairs (“Secretary”), at 27. The Secretary asserts the importance of respecting that Congress has reasons for using the exact words it chooses to use in the statutes that it writes. Id. at 28–29. The Secretary contends that Rudisill’s position could have positive effects for some veterans, but that Congress could have other concerns in mind like administrative burdens and cost levels. Id. at 10.The Secretary maintains that the court cannot interfere in complex statutory structures by assuming Congress intended to further promote educational benefits for veterans. Id.
THE PRO–VETERAN CANON AS AN INTERPRETATIVE TOOL TO FAVOR VETERANS
The American Legion (“The Legion”), in support of Rudisill, argues that ruling against Rudisill in this case could disrupt how courts apply the veterans’ canon, an important interpretive tool that has benefited many veterans over the years. Brief of Amicus Curiae The American Legion (“The Legion”), in Support of Petitioner at 4. The Legion explains the pro-veterans’ canon as the doctrine that, when presented with language in a statute that could have more than one interpretation, courts choose the interpretation that would benefit veterans. Id. at 15–16. Since 1943, the Supreme Court has officially recognized the veterans’ canon, but the canon originated much earlier in U.S. history. Brief of Amicus Curiae The Commonwealth of Virginia et al. in Support of Petitioner at 12. According to The Legion, Congress has traditionally followed a pattern of legislation of taking generous care of veterans, since the Revolutionary War. Brief of The Legion at 8–10. Moreover, Commonwealth of Virginia et al., in support of Rudissil, asserts that this approach has been supported by the courts since John Jay’s opinion in Hayburn’s Case in 1792. Brief of The Commonwealth of Virginia et al. at 12. Since then, The National Institute of Military Justice, in support of Rudisill, argues thatthe veterans’ canon has been consistently used as a judicial check against the government to make sure it keeps Congress’s promises to veterans. Brief of Amicus Curiae The National Institute of Military Justice, in Support of Petitioner at 22.
Secretary McDonough (the “Secretary”) argues that the veteran’s canon is not applicable to this case. Brief for Secretary at 27. The Secretary explains that the veteran’s canon is only used in cases that rely on interpreting ambiguous statutory text. Id. at 31. The Secretary asserts that statutory text is ambiguous when it can reasonably have one of several different meanings, and in such cases, courts assume that Congress intended the option that is best for veterans. Id. The Secretary argues that this case does not involve any ambiguity, since the statute applies to Rudisill through its plain language. Id. The Secretary claims this case would therefore not change anything about how the veterans’ canon is usually applied, since it does not involve the veterans’ canon at all. Id. The Secretary contends that applying the veteran’s canon to this case would actually change the interpretative tool from something that carries out Congress’s pro–veteran intent to a tool that overrides Congressional intent in areas with no ambiguity. Id. at 31. The Secretary also argues that veterans would not be undermined under the Federal Circuit’s holding, as there is value in switching to the Post–9/11 Plan if veterans have different educational priorities and want some of the attached extra benefits. Id. at 32.
- Katherine Knott, Supreme Court to Hear GI Bill Case, Inside Higher Ed (June 28, 2023).
- Stephanie Zimmerman, Supreme Court to Hear Decorated Army Vet’s Claim That VA Shortchanged His GI Bill Benefits, Chicago Sun–Times (June 26, 2023).