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Washington — The Supreme Court on Monday said it will consider a legal fight involving two federal programs that award educational benefits for veterans, including those who served in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. 

Arguments in the case are set to be heard by the justices when they convene for their next term, which begins in October. Lawyers for the veteran at the center of the case, James Rudisill, told the court it could resolve whether 1.7 million veterans can use full GI education benefits earned through service after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The case involves two laws passed by Congress that provide educational benefits to veterans in recognition of their service: the Montgomery GI Bill, enacted in 1984, awards qualifying veterans who served on active duty between 1985 and 2030; and the Post-9/11 GI Bill, enacted in June 2008, under which eligible veterans who served on active duty since Sept. 11, 2001, are entitled to 36 months of educational benefits. 

Both programs cap the education assistance at 36 months, but the Post-9/11 GI Bill was designed to provide veterans with “enhanced educational assistance benefits” that are more generous than the Montgomery GI bill, as Congress found that active-duty service was “especially arduous” for military members after the 9/11 terror attacks.

Congress also enacted a provision that prohibits a veteran from obtaining more than 48 months of benefits under the various federal programs. To coordinate the Montgomery and Post-9/11 programs, Congress approved measures under which a veteran who has already used some of the Montgomery benefits can choose to receive benefits under the Post-9/11 program, but in doing so is subject to a “limitation on entitlement” — the number of months available for Post-9/11 benefits is limited to the number of months of unused Montgomery benefits.

The veteran who brought the case, Rudisill, enlisted in the Army in 2000 and received an honorable discharge in June 2002, after which he used a portion of the 36 months of benefits he was eligible for through the Montgomery GI bill to pursue an undergraduate degree. 

Rudisill enlisted a second time with the Army National Guard and deployed to Iraq from 2004 to 2005. He received another honorable discharge and resumed his undergraduate studies, using a combined 25 months and 14 days of benefits from the Montgomery GI bill.

Rudisill was then commissioned as an officer in the Army, from November 2007 to August 2011. Following a third honorable discharge, he worked as an agent in the FBI’s domestic-terrorism unit.

Interested in a fourth tour, as an Army chaplain, Rudisill was admitted to the Yale Divinity School and sought to use assistance from the Post-9/11 GI Bill to pay for his graduate education. According to court filings, Rudisill believed that though he earned 36 months of Post-9/11 benefits through his service, he would be able to use 22 months and 16 days, since he had used 25 months and 14 days of the Montgomery benefit. His calculation was based on a statute setting a cap of 48 months of benefits stemming from multiple periods of service. 

But the Department of Veterans Affairs found that although Rudisill was eligible for the Post-9/11 benefits, his Post-9/11 educational assistance was limited to the number of unused months remaining from his Montgomery allotment — 10 months and 16 days. He challenged the decision to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, which affirmed the VA’s finding.

Rudisill then turned to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, which ruled in his favor and found he was not subject to the limitation, as it applied only to veterans who qualified for the Montgomery and Post-9/11 programs based on a “single period of service.” A divided three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit then affirmed, agreeing that the Post-9/11 program’s “limitation on entitlement” did not apply to veterans like Rudisill, with “multiple periods of qualifying service.”

But the Department of Veterans Affairs asked the full Federal Circuit to reconsider the case and the majority, upon review, said federal law limits the months of benefits available to all veterans who switch from the Montgomery benefits program to the Post-9/11 program without exhausting Montgomery benefits.

Rudisill then asked the Supreme Court to weigh in, arguing that as Congress has enacted each new benefit program, it has permitted veterans to earn benefits under more than one up to a 48-month aggregate cap.

“Never once has Congress required a veteran who qualified for multiple GI Bill programs, based on separate and distinct periods of qualifying service, to first forfeit or exhaust one benefit in order to obtain another, including to receive 48 months of total benefits,” his lawyers told the court.

They argued the decision from the Federal Circuit “breaks Congress’ core promise in the GI Bills for post-9/11 era veterans by, for the first time in our Nation’s history, depriving veterans with multiple periods of qualifying service of the full use of the 48 months of education benefits that they have earned.”

The Biden administration, urging the Supreme Court to turn down the case, argued that Rudisill is subject to the limitation on entitlement under federal law, as he was entitled to Montgomery benefits, used a portion of them but retained the unused Montgomery benefits, and elected to receive educational assistance through the Post-9/11 program.

“The statutory language here is unambiguous,” Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar wrote in a court filing. “Nothing in the text of [the laws] suggests that those provisions treat a veteran with one period of service differently from a veteran with multiple periods of service. That should be the end of the analysis.”