Mathews v. Diaz

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426 U.S. 67 (1976)

The Supreme Court held that a provision of the Social Security Act denying eligibility for Medicare part B unless the applicant has been in the United States for a minimum of five years and has been admitted for permanent residency does not deny the applicant of liberty or property without due process of law. (Read the opinion here.)

In the opinion Justice Stevens authored for a unanimous Court, the Court addressed the requirements Congress may impose on noncitizens applying for federal medical insurance. This decision, rooted in a class action suit against the federal government, reaffirmed Congress’s and the President’s plenary authority over immigration policy.

A district court held that the federal statute was invalid because it was not rationally based and was not free of invidious discrimination. The Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare appealed the lower court’s decision, and the Supreme Court granted review. The Court broke down the issues in the case to three: (1) whether the plaintiffs’ failure to exhaust administrative remedies denied the district court jurisdiction, (2) whether Congress may discriminate against noncitizens and in favor of citizens in providing federal welfare benefits, and (3) if so, whether the provisions in question are constitutional.

On the first issue, the Court found that the district court had jurisdiction to hear the case, despite the plaintiffs’ failure to exhaust administrative remedies. Generally, before a plaintiff can file an appeal, there must be a final decision on his complaint. The requirement was satisfied in this case when the Secretary stipulated that no facts were in dispute and the only issue was a constitutional one to be decided by the district court. The Court interpreted the Secretary’s stipulation as tantamount to a final decision and waiver of the administrative exhaustion requirements.

On the second issue, the Court reaffirmed that noncitizens are entitled to Due Process protections under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments regardless of immigration status. Due Process protections do not, however, grant noncitizens all of the advantages and benefits of citizenship. Immigration policy requires a distinction between citizens and noncitizens. Such necessarily disparate treatment between citizens and noncitizens in immigration law is not illegally discriminatory under the Constitution.

Further, the Court held that disparate treatment between noncitizens is not necessarily unconstitutional. Noncitizens are a heterogeneous group. While there is no affirmative duty to extend the benefits of citizenship to noncitizens, Congress is free to extend benefits to any sub-group of noncitizens it finds reasonable. The Court found that Congress was making a rational qualitative determination on the character of the relationship between the noncitizen and the United States. Congress is free to decide that a noncitizen’s affinity to the United States grows in tandem with his claim to benefits bestowed by this country. The durational requirement and admission for permanent residence are simply markers Congress has chosen to delineate between noncitizens who have developed an affinity to the United States sufficient enough to warrant receiving certain benefits, and those who have not. The Court is reluctant to question a policy choice that embodies careful consideration by Congress, the branch of government with the greatest legal authority over immigration policy.

The Court reaffirmed Congress’s broad powers over immigration and naturalization policy, where Congress can make rules governing noncitizens that would be unconstitutional if applied to citizens. Immigration and naturalization policy implicate issues of foreign relations, which are constantly evolving. The fluid nature of foreign relations requires flexibility that the political branches are uniquely qualified to exercise. Judicial decisions are more rigid due to the respect given to precedence in our common law system. Therefore, the Court reaffirmed that judicial review over immigration policy is necessarily narrow. In the case at hand, any judicial decision second-guessing Congress’s policy choices on immigration would be an unconstitutional abrogation of legislative authority.

In conclusion, the Court overturned the district court’s decision and held that Congress is constitutionally authorized to use discretion in extending federal benefits to citizens over noncitizens, and to some noncitizens over other noncitizens.

Authored by: Edoardo Murillo, Cornell Law School