Supreme Court justices on Wednesday heard arguments in a veterans benefits case which advocates say could extend extra college tuition support to millions of young veterans, but court members have offered no clear signs as to how they may rule.
The case — Rudisill vs. McDonough — is an eight-year legal battle brought by an Iraq War veteran who tried unsuccessfully to use both his Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits and Montgomery GI Bill eligibility. Wednesday’s arguments were the culmination of that fight, with a host of veterans advocates closely monitoring the arguments because of the potential impact of the decision.
Jim Rudisill, a 43-year-old Army veteran at the center of the court case, was wounded in a roadside bomb attack in Iraq in 2005 and used his Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits shortly thereafter. But he also wanted to tap into his unused Montgomery GI Bill benefits to attend Yale Divinity School as part of the process to become an Army chaplain, and sued when VA officials denied that move.
That opportunity to study at Yale has long since passed, but Rudisill — who now works for the FBI — said he wanted to continue the legal case to provide more opportunities for other veterans.
“It was important for me to see this case through to the very end because I did not want to give up on obtaining the benefits I earned, and making sure the same is true for all my fellow veterans,” he said in a statement after Wednesday’s arguments. “We deserve what was promised.”
Attorneys for Rudisill said as many as 1.7 million post-9/11 veterans could be eligible to receive expanded education benefits — at a cost of tens of billions of dollars to the federal government — if the Supreme Court sides with their legal position.
Department of Justice officials have argued the pool of veterans is potentially much smaller: around 30,000 veterans. They see the case applying only to veterans who served separate qualifying tours in the military, as Rudisill did.
Most veterans attending college today with federal financial support use the Post-9/11 GI Bill program, a generous benefit passed in 2008 that awards eligible veterans 36 months of tuition payouts, housing stipends and other financial assistance.
The Montgomery GI Bill program was the predecessor to that benefit, and is being phased out by the department. It offers far less money, but still can provide several thousands of dollars annually to veterans for tuition costs if they paid into the program at the start of their military service.
Currently, VA officials make students give up eligibility for the Montgomery GI Bill program when they register to begin using the Post-9/11 GI Bill. That means that once their education benefits from that program are exhausted, they cannot receive more tuition support from the other program.
Troutman Pepper attorney Misha Tseytlin, representing Rudisill, argued on Wednesday that such a requirement is unfair, effectively cheating veterans out of their earned benefits.
But Assistant to the Solicitor General Vivek Suri, arguing on behalf of the government, said federal statute does not allow veterans to receive both. Lower courts have offered split rulings on which position is right.
Complicating the issue are separate federal rules that cap any government higher education payouts at 48 months, or prohibit using such benefits concurrently. Several justices questioned why veterans who qualify for both would not be able to fill in gaps in their education plans with either plan if their benefits have not been completely exhausted.
“I’m not sure it makes sense to say ‘no, you can only have 36 months because you used some benefits before,’” Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said. “It all seems utterly arbitrary.”
But Justice Clarence Thomas challenged Tseytlin’s position, saying that tapping into both programs appears to run afoul of a host of limitations put in place by Congress over the years.
The Supreme Court is expected to issue a final ruling on the case sometime in 2024. The decision could be specific to just Rudisill’s case or broad enough to cover almost all military members who have served in the last 22 years.
Any decision is likely to have no effect on spouses and children of veterans who have used veterans benefits to attend college. Unlike the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which can be transferred to family members and dependents, the Montgomery GI Bill cannot be passed to non-veterans.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.