Opinions / Supreme Court Activity

Tuesday, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Rudisill v. McDonough, a veterans case previously decided by the Federal Circuit. In a seven to two decision, the Court reversed and remanded the Federal Circuit’s ruling in the case, finding that “[v]eterans who separately accrue benefits under both the Montgomery and Post-9/11 GI Bills are entitled to both benefits” up to a 48-month aggregate benefits cap. Justice Jackson authored the Court’s majority opinion, which was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett. Justice Kavanaugh, joined by Justice Barrett, filed a concurring opinion. Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Alito, filed a dissenting opinion. This is our opinion summary.

Justice Jackson’s Majority Opinion

Justice Jackson summarized the relevant statutory provisions providing educational benefits to servicemembers:

Per [38 U.S.C.] § 3322, servicemembers who are eligible for educational benefits under either the Montgomery GI Bill or the Post-9/11 GI Bill—from a period of service that could qualify for either program—can opt to credit that service toward one educational benefits program or the other. If servicemembers serve for long enough, they may be entitled to both. But such service members cannot receive disbursements from both entitlement programs at the same time, nor may they receive any combination of benefits for longer than 48 months. 

Justice Jackson then described the factual background related to the servicemember involved in this case, James Rudisill:

To fund his graduate school education, Rudisill applied to the VA for Post-9/11 benefits, relying on the entitlement that he had earned with respect to his second and third periods of service. But the VA issued a certificate of eligibility stating that Rudisill was only eligible for 10 months and 16 days of Post-9/11 benefits—the length of his unused Montgomery benefits. . . . In [Rudisill’s] view, he had earned an entitlement to 36 months of Post-9/11 benefits based on his second and third periods of service, and he could use 22 months and 16 days of that Post-9/11 entitlement due to §3695’s 48-month aggregate-benefits cap. Rudisill filed a notice of disagreement with the VA, which eventually denied his claim for the additional entitlement. 

Justice Jackson noted that, while the Board of Veterans’ Appeals affirmed the VA’s decision, the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims reversed, holding that, “although the statutory scheme was ambiguous, the statutory structure, regulatory framework, congressional purpose, and pro-veteran canon supported Rudisill’s interpretation of the statute.” The Federal Circuit, in turn, reversed the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, holding that, “when Rudisill sought to use his Post-9/11 benefits, he had made an ‘election’ under §3327(a)(1), making his benefits subject to §3327(d)(2)’s limit.”

As for the Supreme Court’s analysis, Justice Jackson began by examining “Rudisill’s benefits entitlements generally.” She explained that “the statute establishes a baseline rule that, absent some other limitation, the VA must pay a veteran’s benefits.” As for the relevant limitations, she explained that “Congress has clearly and plainly delineated certain durational limits,” including the limitation that “[e]ach program entitles the recipient to up to 36 months of benefits,” and the further limitation that “both are ‘[s]ubject to section 3695,’ which imposes a 48-month aggregate-benefits cap.” Thus, Justice Jackson explained, “even before turning to the statutory provisions that are most directly implicated here, it is clear that (1) Rudisill is separately entitled to each of two educational benefits; and (2) absent specified limits, the VA is statutorily obligated to pay him 48 months of benefits.” 

Addressing other statutory provisions, Justice Jackson explained that “nothing in the statute imposes a duty for any veteran to ‘coordinate’ entitlements in order to receive benefits.” Justice Jackson noted that “§ 3322(d) serves a specific function: to allow individuals with Montgomery benefits who would prefer to swap them for Post-9/11 benefits to ‘coordinate’ these entitlements via § 3327.” Applying this provision to the facts of this case, she clarified that “when a person already has two separate entitlements and simply uses one after the other, he is not coordinating anything.” Thus, Justice Jackson explained “§ 3322(d) does not speak to” Rudisill’s case. 

Justice Jackson then analyzed the text of § 3327. She noted that a “§ 3327(a) election is optional: An eligible individual ‘may elect to receive’ Post-9/11 benefits.” She discussed that “Section 3327(d)(1) tells us that ‘an individual making an election under [§ 3327(a)] shall be entitled to [Post-9/11 benefits] instead of basic [Montgomery benefits].’” Thus, she explained, “Rudisill had no need to get Post-9/11 benefits ‘instead of’ Montgomery benefits, because he was already entitled to both benefits.” She discussed that, “[w]hen these veterans ‘mak[e] an election under [§3327(a)], the number of months of [Post-9/11 benefits] shall be . . . the number of months of unused [Montgomery benefits], as of the date of the election.’” Justice Jackson clarified, however, that this limitation “appl[ies] only to an individual who makes a §3327(a) election,” and, thus, Rudisill has “two different entitlements . . . that the VA ‘shall pay’ to him, subject only to § 3695’s 48-month cap.”

In sum, the Court held that “[n]either § 3322(d) nor § 3327 restrict veterans with two separate entitlements who simply seek to use either one” and, “[t]hus, Rudisill may use his benefits, in any order, up to § 3695’s 48-month aggregate-benefits cap.”

Notably, the Court did not apply the pro-veteran canon to reach its conclusion. Justice Jackson explained that, “[i]f the statute were ambiguous, the pro-veteran canon would favor Rudisill, but the statute is clear, so we resolve this case based on statutory text alone.”

As a result of its analysis, the Court reversed the Federal Circuit’s judgment and remanded the case. 

Justice Kavanaugh’s Concurrence

In his concurring opinion, Justice Kavanaugh discussed “some practical and constitutional questions about the justifications for a benefits-related canon (such as the veterans canon) that favors one particular group over others.” He explained how under the veterans canon “statutes that provide benefits to veterans are to be construed ‘in the veteran’s favor.’” Justice Kavanaugh, however, argued that, “when statutes afford broad benefits for veterans or others, as is often the case, courts should apply the statutes as written.” He suggested that “providing federal benefits—and determining their scope—is Congress’s prerogative.” By contrast, he argued, the “Judiciary’s role is to neutrally interpret those statutes, not to put a thumb on the scale in favor of or against any particular group.”

Justice Thomas’s Dissent

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Thomas discussed his view that, “when a veteran switches to Post-9/11 benefits after using some, but not all, of his Montgomery benefits, the amount of his Post-9/11 benefits is limited to the number of months he had remaining for Montgomery benefits.” He argued the majority “decline[d] to apply the statute’s corresponding limitation on his benefits because Rudisill was separately entitled to Montgomery and Post-9/11 benefits due to his multiple periods of service.” According to Justice Thomas, however, “this approach conflicts with the statute’s plain text.”

Justice Thomas first discussed how, “[u]nder § 3327, if a veteran elects to switch to Post-9/11 benefits when he ‘has used, but retains unused,’ Montgomery benefits, he is subject to a statutory ‘[l]imitation on entitlement.’” According to Justice Thomas, “Rudisill filled out a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) form electing to receive Post-9/11 benefits ‘in lieu of ‘ Montgomery benefits.” Furthermore, Justice Thomas maintained, Rudisill “expressly acknowledged that his ‘months of entitlement under’ . . . Post-9/11 benefits . . . would be ‘limited to the number of months of entitlement remaining under’ . . . Montgomery benefits.”

As a result, his dissent argued, “Rudisill’s Post-9/11 benefits are limited to the amount of Montgomery benefits he had not used.” According to Justice Thomas, “[b]ecause he could not use his sets of benefits concurrently, the statute required that Rudisill coordinate his entitlements, and that such coordination would be governed by § 3327.” Justice Thomas asserted that Rudisill elected these benefits because “the statute . . . require[s] Rudisill to coordinate his entitlements and creating an election mechanism for him to do so.” Justice Thomas clarified that “[t]he ‘coordination’ here refers to a veteran choosing which ‘entitlement’ . . . he would like to use.” He explained that, “[b]y making a § 3327(a)(1) election, a veteran triggers [the] ‘[l]imitation on entitlement.’”

Justice Thomas also refuted the Court’s conclusion “that because Rudisill was ‘entitled’ to Montgomery benefits and ‘entitled’ to Post- 9/11 benefits, those multiple entitlements cannot be limited when switching between benefits.” According to Justice Thomas, “[t]he majority tries to justify its selective reading of the statute by suggesting that the coordination provision in § 3322(d) ‘simply does not speak to a veteran who just wants to use one of his two separate entitlements.’” He maintained that “the wisdom of this limitation is not up to this Court” because “[i]t was for Congress to decide what Post-9/11 benefits a veteran should receive retroactively.” And, regarding the pro-veteran canon, Justice Thomas asserted “this canon cannot apply when the statutory text is plain, so it has no role to play here.”

In concluding his dissent, Justice Thomas argued “the Court ignores the statutory mechanism that Congress created in favor of an interpretation that reaches a desired outcome.”