Conservative justices who hold the Supreme Court’s majority appear poised to strike down President Joe Biden’s plan to wipe out or reduce student loans held by millions of Americans.
In arguments that lasted more than three hours Tuesday, Chief Justice John Roberts led his conservative colleagues in questioning the administration’s authority to largely cancel federal student loans because of the COVID-19 emergency.
Loan payments that have been on hold since the corona crisis began three years ago are to be resumed by this summer at the latest. Without the loan relief promised by the Biden plan, the administration’s top Supreme Court attorney said, “delays and defaults will increase.”
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The plan has so far been blocked by Republican-appointed lower court judges. It didn’t seem to fare any better with the six justices appointed by Republican presidents.
Biden’s only hope for moving forward appeared to be the slim possibility, based on the arguments, that the court would find that Republican-led states and individuals challenging the plan lacked legal standing to sue.
That would allow the court to dismiss the lawsuits at a threshold stage, without ruling on the basic idea of the loan forgiveness program that seemed to trouble the justices on the court’s right.
Roberts was one of the justices who grilled Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, suggesting the administration had overstepped its authority.
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Three times, the chief justice said the program would cost half a trillion dollars, pointing to its broad impact and high costs as reasons the administration should have received express approval from Congress. The program, which the administration says is based on a 2003 law passed in response to the military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. estimated to cost $400 billion over 30 years.
“If you’re talking about this in the abstract, I think most casual observers would say if you’re going to give up so much … money, if you’re going to affect the obligations of so many Americans on a subject of great controversy, they would think it’s something for Congress to act on,” Roberts said.
Judge Brett Kavanaugh suggested he concurred, saying it “seems problematic” for the administration to use an “old law” to unilaterally implement a debt relief program that Congress had refused to enact.
Neither justice seemed swayed by Prelogar’s explanation that the administration cited the national emergency created by the pandemic as authority for the debt relief program under a law commonly known as the HEROES Act.
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“Some of the biggest mistakes in the court’s history were deferring to claims of executive emergency,” Kavanaugh said. “Some of the finest moments in the court’s history were pushing back against the president’s claims of emergency power.”
At another point, however, Kavanaugh suggested the program could be on firmer legal ground than other pandemic-related programs ended by the court’s conservative majority, including an eviction moratorium and a requirement for vaccines or frequent testing at large workplaces.
The previous programs halted by the court were largely billed as public health measures intended to slow the spread of covid-19. The loan forgiveness plan, on the other hand, aims to counteract the financial effects of the pandemic.
Preloger and some of the liberal justices tried several times to turn the arguments back to the people who would benefit from the program. The administration says 26 million people have applied to have up to $20,000 in federal student loan forgiveness under the plan.
“The states are asking this court to deny millions of Americans this important relief,” she said.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor said her fellow justices will be making a mistake if they take for themselves, rather than leave it to education experts, “the right to decide how much support to give” to people who will struggle if the program is scrapped.
“Their financial situation is going to be even worse, because once you default, the difficulties for you are exponentially greater. You can’t get credit. You’re going to pay higher prices for things,” Sotomayor said.
But Roberts pointed to apparent favoritism.
He offered a hypothetical example of a person who skips college to start a lawn service with borrowed money. “Nobody is telling the person trying to start the lawn service business that they don’t have to pay their loan,” Roberts said.
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Republican-leaning state and congressional lawmakers, as well as conservative legal interests, oppose the plan as a violation of Biden’s executive powers. Democratic-led states and liberal interest groups are backing the administration in urging the court to let the plan go into effect.
The justices’ questions reflected the partisan divide on the issue, with conservatives arguing that non-college workers shouldn’t be penalized and liberals arguing for the break for college graduates.
On the eve of the arguments, Biden had said: “I am confident that the legal authority to carry that plan is there.”
The president, who once doubted his own authority to largely write off student debt, first announced the program in August. Legal challenges quickly followed.
The administration says the HEROES Act allows the Secretary of Education to waive or modify the terms of federal student loans in the context of a national emergency. The law was primarily intended to prevent service members from being harmed financially while fighting in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Nebraska and other states that sued say the 20 million borrowers who would have their entire loans written off would receive a “windfall” and leave them better off than before the pandemic.
“This is the creation of an entirely new program, far beyond what Congress intended,” Nebraska Attorney General James Campbell said in court Tuesday.
The national emergency is expected to end on May 11, but the administration says the economic impact will remain, despite historically low unemployment and other signs of economic strength.
Beyond the debate over the power to forgive student debt, the court confronts whether the states and two individuals whose challenge is also before the courts have legal standing, or standing, to sue.
Parties generally must show that they would suffer economic harm to have standing in cases like this. A federal judge initially found that the states would not be harmed and dismissed their lawsuit before an appeals panel said the case could proceed.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined the three liberal justices in repeatedly questioning Nebraska’s Campbell on that issue. But it would take at least one other conservative vote to form a majority.
Of the two individuals who sued in Texas, one has student loans held commercially and the other is eligible for $10,000 in debt relief, not the $20,000 maximum. They would get nothing if they win their case.
Among those in the courtroom Tuesday was Kayla Smith, a recent University of Georgia graduate who camped near the court the night before to get a seat. Biden’s plan would lift a burden on her mother, who borrowed more than $20,000 in federal student loans to help Smith attend college.
“It just seems kind of messed up that college is the expectation, higher education is the expectation, but at the same time people’s lives are being destroyed,” said Smith, 22, who lives in Atlanta.
The arguments are available on AP’s YouTube channel or on the court’s website.
A decision is expected at the end of June.