Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

PolitiFact Florida | Tampa Bay Times
Sorting out the truth in state politics

Jolly's right: Social Security benefits not guaranteed

Social Security has been a popular political football during the campaign for Pinellas County's open U.S. House seat, with both sides acknowledging the earned benefit program needs reform, but differing on how it should be handled.

During an untelevised debate in Clearwater on Feb. 25, candidates Alex Sink and David Jolly traded barbs over their platforms, with Sink attacking the Republican onstage by saying Jolly had declared that Social Security was not guaranteed. Jolly said that wasn't his opinion, it's actually what the highest court in the land had ruled. Jolly said it was up to elected officials to make sure seniors get their benefits.

"In 1960, the United States Supreme Court in the Flemming decision said Social Security is not guaranteed," he said. "My fight is to make sure that is guaranteed."

Jolly's claim made us curious about what the courts have said about Social Security, so we decided to open the law books.

The case to which Jolly was referring is Flemming vs. Nestor, a 1960 case about a Bulgarian immigrant named Ephram Nestor who was deported in 1956 for having been a member of the Communist Party between 1933 and 1939. Nestor was not a citizen, but had lived in the United States since 1913.

Nestor retired in 1955 after paying into the Social Security fund for 19 years, since the program was created in 1936. When he was deported, his benefits were terminated under amended provisions of the Social Security Act of 1935.

Nestor sued the federal government, claiming the benefits constituted a contract and that he deserved his payments after so many years of contributing to the system. (The other party in the case was Arthur S. Flemming, the secretary of health, education and welfare during Dwight Eisenhower's presidency.)

In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled there was no contractual obligation for the government to pay out Social Security benefits to Nestor.

The ruling meant payments into the Social Security system could not be considered a person's property rights if that person violated a rule set forth by Congress, UCLA law professor Katherine Stone told PolitiFact Florida.

In Nestor's case, Congress made rules against belonging to the Communist Party, though it's worth pointing out the law didn't exist when Nestor actually was in the party. Still, the court said the after-the-fact prohibition was valid.

"People who are denied (benefits) can't say their property was taken from them, unless the change is arbitrary or lacks rational reasoning," Stone said, noting the denial couldn't be punitive or violate a person's right to due process.

What could be considered unreasonable? "Just ending the program suddenly could be an irrational measure," Stone suggested. "Moving the money into tax cuts for the rich could, too."

Changing or suspending the program because of budget constraints, though, would likely pass muster with the courts.

Jolly's interpretation of that ruling is interesting, Stone said, because the case only deals with one specific category of beneficiary being denied payments for a specific reason.

But beneficiaries could be denied benefits for any reason if Congress passed a law making it so, as long as the change wasn't arbitrary. The court said Congress had the power to modify the rules, which it has done several times — such as gradually raising the full retirement age over time.

Political debates over Social Security payouts have been fueled by budget projections illustrating the widening chasm of the program paying out more than it is taking in. A 2005 Congressional Research Service report on Social Security reform pointed out that beneficiaries were not guaranteed "full benefits in the case of a shortfall, unless Congress amends applicable laws."

As for Jolly's statement that the Supreme Court ruled "Social Security is not guaranteed," the 1960 Flemming vs. Nestor case he cited indeed said that citizens don't have a right to Social Security benefits, no matter how long they paid into the system. Congress can change the rules how it sees fit, as long as it follows due process.

We rate the statement True.

Edited for print. Read the full version at PolitiFact.com/Florida.

The statement

The U.S. Supreme Court found that "Social Security is not guaranteed."

David Jolly, Republican congressional candidate, during Feb. 25 debate

The ruling

PolitiFact ruling: True
The 1960 Flemming vs. Nestor case Jolly cited indeed said citizens don't have a right to Social Security benefits, no matter how long they paid into the system. We rate the statement True.

Jolly's right: Social Security benefits not guaranteed 03/02/14 [Last modified: Sunday, March 2, 2014 7:34pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Erasmo Ramirez shuts down his old Rays teammates

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — Kevin Kiermaier returned. The problem is, so did Erasmo Ramirez.

    Seattle Mariners first baseman Yonder Alonso (10) scores on the double by Seattle Mariners designated hitter Nelson Cruz (23) in the first inning of the game between the Seattle Mariners and the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Friday, August 18, 2017.
  2. 'Road to Nowhere' is back: Next phase of Suncoast Parkway coming

    Roads

    Despite intense public opposition and dubious traffic projections, the Florida Department of Transportation has announced that construction of the toll road known as "Suncoast 2" is expected to start in early 2018.

    The Suncoast Parkway ends at U.S. 98 just south of Citrus County. For years residents have opposed extending the toll road, a project dubbed the "Suncoast 2" into Citrus County. But state officials recently announced that the Suncoast 2 should start construction in early 2018. [Stephen J. Coddington  |  TIMES]
  3. Jameis Winston's hardest lesson: He can't always save the day

    Bucs

    TAMPA — Ever wonder what in the world goes through Jameis Winston's mind when he tries to fit the ball in a keyhole as he is being dragged to the turf like he was during Thursday night's 12-8 preseason win over the Jaguars?

    Jameis Winston, left, tries to hang on to the ball as Jaguars defensive end Dante Fowler tries to strip it from him.
  4. Despite pain, woman in court faces ex-boyfriend who lit her on fire

    Criminal

    PORT RICHEY

    Sheron Pasco sat in the wheelchair as her mother pushed it toward the man in the orange jail suit.

    Sheron Pasco, 39, relies on the help of her mother, Tranda Webb, 62, as she recovers from the burns covering her body.
  5. Florida starter under center still under wraps

    College

    GAINESVILLE — With two weeks before Florida opens its season against Michigan, the Gators' three-way quarterback battle remains wide open.

    Luke Del Rio, right, is in the mix to start against Michigan in the season opener … as is Malik Zaire and Feleipe Franks.