Argument Preview / Supreme Court Activity

Today, the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments in Rudisill v. McDonough, a veterans case regarding educational benefits. The Supreme Court granted review to consider whether “a veteran who has served two separate and distinct periods of qualifying service under the Montgomery GI Bill, . . .  and under 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.” This is our argument preview.

In his opening merits brief, Rudisill makes two arguments. First, he argues veterans who qualify for these educational benefits have a right to use them. Second, he asserts, the text of the relevant statutory provision and the pro-veteran canon suggest that veterans have no obligation to give up their rights to these educational benefits. 

Rudisill’s first argument centers on the assertion that, for veterans “who have earned both Montgomery and Post-9/11 benefits through separate periods of service, the only limitations on their use of those benefits are the 48-month aggregate-use cap and the bar on concurrent use of benefits.” Rudisill asserts “the ‘aggregate period for which any person may receive assistance under two or more’ specified GI Bill programs ‘may not exceed 48 months.’” Rudisill explains:

This statutory regime gives such multiple-period-of-service veterans the right to utilize their Montgomery and Post-9/11 benefits in whatever order they deem best for their educational purposes, just as veterans have always been able to do when they have two separate periods of qualifying service. So long as such veterans comply with the bar on concurrent benefits usage, 38 U.S.C. § 3322(a), and the 48-month aggregate-use cap, [38 U.S.C.] § 3695(a), they can use their Montgomery and Post-9/11 benefits in whatever order they deem best.

Applying this reasoning to the facts of this case, Rudisill maintains that he is “entitled to receive 36 months of Montgomery benefits . . . and 36 months of Post-9/11” benefits. Rudisill concedes that, because he “has already used 25 months and 14 days of Montgomery benefits for his undergraduate education, he is limited to receipt of 22 months and 16 days of Post- 9/11 benefits, under the 48-month cap.”

Rudisill then transitions his argument to focus on the canons of statutory interpretation. Rudisill argues that “[b]y using the term ‘may,’ Congress made [38 U.S.C. § 3327] voluntary, meaning that veterans never need to make an election” concerning their educational benefits. According to Rudisill:

The statutory context of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, in general, and Sections 3322 and 3327, in particular, make clear that Congress designed Subsection 3327(a) as part of an equitable, voluntary mechanism that assists veterans who want to turn their Montgomery benefits (earned from a first” period of service after June 30, 1985) into more generous Post-9/11 benefits, while recouping payments they made into the Montgomery program.”

Rudisill maintains the “Federal Circuit and VA have never been able to articulate even a plausible reason why Congress would have wanted to create the punitive regime that they read into the Post-9/11 GI Bill.” Furthermore, Rudisill argues, the “pro-veteran canon provides that veterans’ benefits statutes must ‘be liberally construed to protect those who have been obliged to drop their own affairs and take up the burdens of the nation.’” Thus, according to Rudisill, the Federal Circuit’s interpretation wrongly “forc[es]” veterans “either to give up their statutory right to 48 months of aggregate benefits or to give up all but 12 months of the more generous wartime benefits that they earned with wartime service.”

In its merits brief, the government makes two arguments. First, it argues the language in Section 3327 provides a limitation concerning the educational benefit programs. Second, the government asserts, Rudisill’s interpretation of Section 3327 “cannot overcome the statute’s plain text.”

The government first looks to the language of 38 U.S.C. § 3327(a), asserting that the statute’s use of the phrase “‘may elect to receive’ Post-9/11 benefits implies that those veterans will receive those benefits only if they elect them.” According to the government:

Section 3327(a) states that a veteran may elect Post-9/11 benefits if he (1) has used, but retains unused, Montgomery benefits and (2) “meets the requirements for entitlement to” Post-9/11 benefits. Section 3327(a) thus applies specifically to veterans like petitioner—i.e., veterans who qualify for both Montgomery and Post-9/11 benefits. It allows them to receive Post-9/11 benefits by making an election, subject to the terms specified in the rest of Section 3327.

The government maintains Rudisill “could have first exhausted his Montgomery benefits and then received an additional 12 months of benefits under the Post-9/11 Bill.” According to the government, however, Rudisill has “‘used, but retained unused’ Montgomery benefits” and is subject to the limitation clause in Section 3327(d)(2), where “the ‘number of months’ of his Post-9/11 entitlement ‘shall be’ equal to the ‘number of months of unused’ Montgomery entitlement.”

The government argues Rudisill’s interpretation of § 3327 “cannot overcome the statute’s plain text” because the meaning of the statute “turns on the enacted text, not on speculation about congressional intent.” According to the government, a committee report for “proposed amendments to the Post-9/11 GI Bill” states that “an individual, who exhausts entitlement to 36 months of training under the [Montgomery GI Bill], can subsequently enroll and receive an additional 12 months of entitlement under the Post-9/11 GI Bill.” The government argues this legislative “history disproves petitioner’s claim that the regime produced by the text is so ‘absurd’ that Congress ‘could not have intended’ it.”

Further, the government argues, petitioner’s interpretation “would preclude veterans with multiple periods of service from making elections under Section 3327 and thus would deprive them of the opportunity to obtain those advantages.” For these reasons, the government asserts, Rudisill’s “reading is not unambiguously pro-veteran” and the “veteran’s canon” would “provide[] no basis for adopting petitioner’s proposed reading of Section 3327.” 

In his reply brief, Rudisill asserts § 3327 “has no relevance for . . . veterans [with these benefits] because that provision provides only an optional . . . mechanism for trading Montgomery benefits for Post-9/11 benefits.” According to Rudisill, the government’s argument suggests that “when Subsection 3327(a) says that veterans ‘may elect’ Post-9/11 benefits, that really means that veterans ‘must elect’ if they want to use such benefits.” Rudisill argues this is “not what Section 3327 says” and the Supreme Court “is not free to ‘rewrite the statute’ to the Government’s liking.”

Rudisill contends this is an “ideal case for resolution under the pro-veteran canon.” Rudisill maintains his position is “pro-veteran” because “it would allow veterans to obtain the maximum amount of benefits that they are entitled to under both the Montgomery and Post-9/11 GI Bills, while also allowing veterans to decide how to best use their entitlements based on their educational goals.” 

Interested parties have submitted numerous amicus briefs to present their perspectives and arguments on the issues in this case.

Twelve amicus briefs were filed in support the petitioner:

  • American Legion filed an amicus brief in support of the petitioner. In this brief, American Legion asserts the Supreme Court “has long recognized ‘that interpretive doubt is to be resolved in the veteran’s favor.’” According to American Legion, this “pro-veteran canon is not a tiebreaking canon,” but “a recognition of Congress’s general intent that its instructions be interpreted in favor of veterans.” Further, American Legion argues the “application of the pro-veteran canon to the interpretation of educational benefits is particularly appropriate because of the unique success of the G.I. Bill.”
  • Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America filed an amicus brief in support of the petitioner. In this brief, the IAVA asserts the Federal Circuit’s decision “transforms” the Post-9/11 Bill “into a penalty scheme for servicemembers who serve for multiple periods.” According to the IAVA, this “punitive reading” of the Post-9/11 Bill “harms veterans, weakens benefits, and damages the military’s key recruitment tool.”
  • Jeremy C. Doerre submitted an amicus brief in support of Rudisill. In this brief, Doerre argues, “by the plain text of the statute, only entitlement under 38 U.S.C. § 3327(d)(1) is ‘subject to’ the limitation of 38 U.S.C. § 3327(d)(2) ─ entitlement to educational assistance under 38 U.S.C. § 3311(a) is not.” Doerre further contends that “canons of statutory construction suggest that entitlement to educational assistance under 38 U.S.C. § 3311(a) is not constrained by the limitation of 38 U.S.C. § 3327(d)(2).” The brief asserts Petitioner’s “periods of service entitle the Petitioner to Chapter 33 educational assistance under 38 U.S.C. § 3311(a).”
  • Military-Veterans Advocacy, Inc. filed an amicus brief in support of the petitioner. In this brief, the MVA argues the Supreme Court “has been clear that veterans’ benefits statutes should be construed in the beneficiaries’ favor.” MVA argues this canon of statutory interpretation is “essential to preserve this judicial check on an agency bent on misinterpreting the law.” According to MVA, by “ignoring the pro-veteran canon,” “even after returning home, [veterans] still fighting.”
  • National Veterans Legal Services Program, Service Women’s Action Network, Veterans Education Success, and Student Veterans of America filed an amicus brief in support of the petitioner. In their brief, the groups assert “Congress has long relied on the promise of a quality education to attract individuals to serve their country in times of war.” Further, they argue, “[o]ver the years . . . Congress has created overlapping education benefits and consistently permitted veterans to use any benefits for which they qualified, subject to a 48-month maximum.”
  • Senator Tim Kaine, Congresswoman Jennifer McClellan, and fourteen other members of Congress filed an amicus brief in support of the petitioner. In their brief, these members of Congress contend Rudisill’s “reading of the Post-9/11 GI Bill’s text is correct.” They argue “[w]hen multiple periods of service lead to multiple such ‘entitl[ements],’ the law has always provided that veterans are ‘entitled’ to benefits under each entitlement provision, subject only to an overall cap of forty-eight months of benefits.” According to these members of Congress, Section 3327 “simply provides that veterans with a single entitlement to GI Bill benefits for post-9/11 service ‘may,’ but need not, ‘elect[]’ to convert their old benefits to Post-9/11 benefits.”
  • Ten Veterans filed an amicus brief in support of the petitioner. In this brief, these veterans argue the interpretation of Section 3327 “should not obscure the real-world effect on veterans and their families.” They maintain that, “[b]y restricting the total amount of benefits to 36 months for veterans with multiple periods of qualifying service, the VA erroneously limits their ability to transfer their full entitlement to their dependents.” Thus, they contend the Federal Circuit’s interpretation will “negative[ly] impact . . . many military families.”
  • The Commonwealth of Virginia, thirty-nine other states, the District of Columbia, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands filed an amicus brief in support of the petitioner. In this brief, the states assert that “the Bills were ‘designed to assist [veterans] in readjusting to civilian life and in catching up to those whose lives were not disrupted by military service.’” According to these states, the Federal Circuit’s interpretation “could . . . threaten military readiness, given that education benefits play an important role in attracting high-quality recruits to the Armed Forces.” These states also contend that the “pro-veteran canon” should be applied here because “[w]hen a statute has been ‘designed to protect the veteran,’ this Court has ‘liberally construed [it] for the benefit of those who left private life to serve their country in its hour of great need.’” 
  • The Edison Electric Institute, Center for Energy Workforce Development, Veterans in Energy, The American Public Gas Association, Gas and Oil Association of West Virginia, Inc. and The Nuclear Energy Institute filed an amicus brief in support of petitioner. In this brief, these groups contend that “[t]he relevant provisions do not require veterans to exchange unused Montgomery benefits for Post-9/11 benefits; they merely provide the option for those veterans who have already credited all of their eligible service to the Montgomery GI Bill.” Furthermore, they argue “turning the benefits-exchange option into a requirement . . . deprives those long-serving veterans of the additional benefit that Congress rightly recognized they had earned and deserved.”
  • The National Institute of Military Justice filed an amicus brief in support of the petitioner. In this brief, the NIMJ contends that the United States’ “history of broken promises” concerning the “veterans’ benefits system” has “informed Congress’ pro-veteran approach in post-World War II legislation, such as the current GI Bills.” Further, the NIMJ argues that the Supreme Court “has been indispensable in ensuring that wartime promises made are promises kept by liberally construing veterans’ benefits statutes to match the generosity intended by Congress.”
  • Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States filed an amicus brief in support of the petitioner. In this brief, the VFW asserts the “best interpretation of the statutory provisions at issue here is the one that recognizes the Post-9/11 GI Bill for what it is: a law that helps veterans.” Furthermore, the VFW contends, “Congress favors veterans, it knows of the pro-veteran canon, and had it wanted to strip benefits from veterans who went to war . . . it would have said so in stark terms.”

We will soon post an argument recap. As always, you can find all the relevant documents and all of our coverage of the case on our “Supreme Court Case” page.