Joe Biden seeks to save student debt relief plan in Supreme Court
WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court battle over President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan is about more than debt relief for 40 million Americans.
A much broader debate about presidential power will linger just below the surface on Tuesday when the Supreme Court begins to go through Biden’s $400 billion student debt plan over the course of several hours of oral arguments.
The court’s decision, expected later this year, could undermine Biden’s ability to unilaterally pursue other policies, such as those related to abortion and immigration. And that could prove difficult for a president likely to seek re-election with a deadlocked Congress.
“It’s a lot bigger than student loans,” said Christopher Walker, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School. “It’s about the power of the courts and the power of the President.”
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What the judges are signaling regarding that balance of power is one of several longstanding questions the nation’s highest court could answer — or at least hint at — if Biden’s debt plan gets its day in court. Here are some others:
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Biden’s debt relief plan, the result of a campaign pledge, would forgive up to $20,000 in student loan debt for Pell grantees and up to $10,000 for many other borrowers.
The effort has been on hold since a federal court blocked its implementation in October.
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By the end of Tuesday’s Supreme Court hearing, it may be possible to find out whether an estimated 40 million Americans will ever benefit from the plan. Advocates supporting the effort are walking into the courtroom frustrated — but also hopeful.
“Borrowers want to know the fate of their student loans,” said Natalia Abrams, president of the Student Debt Crisis Center, which advocates for borrowers. “But the law is on our side and that keeps us going.”
But the Job Creators Network Foundation, one of the groups questioning Biden’s plan, instead views it as an illegal power grab.
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“If this is allowed to happen, it will give this president — and every future president — a blank check with no input from Congress or the American people,” said Elaine Parker, the group’s president.
Has Biden exceeded his authority with the debt relief plan?
Federal courts have barred attempts by federal agencies to make important policy decisions without the express consent of Congress.
In a high-profile example, in June the Supreme Court invoked the Major Questions Doctrine to strike down tougher power plant emissions regulations.
According to this doctrine, courts can overrule rules that have a major economic impact, are of great “political importance” and are not expressly authorized in the law — although no one knows exactly how to define those terms.
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Biden’s lawyers insist the doctrine doesn’t apply to the student loan dispute. The federal law, they told the Supreme Court, gives the government the power to “repeal or change” lending rules to help Americans suffering from an emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re just very confident,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Thursday. “We see this as an important policy that will help tens of millions of Americans.”
But many experts outside of the administration are much less sure. The law does not specifically address a power to “forgive” credit. No previous government read it that way.
If the court gets into the major issues doctrine, Walker predicted, Biden will lose.
“It’s teed up pretty well,” he said. “It’s really hard to evade the conclusion that the Biden administration is using an old law that was passed to deal with something else in a really broad and sweeping way.”
Is there hope for student debt relief?
Biden’s case is not hopeless: some experts believe the administration has a good chance of convincing the Supreme Court that the wrong plaintiffs sued for the wrong reasons.
If a majority of the court agrees, Biden could be looking for a narrow win.
A threshold question for judges to decide is whether the states and individual borrowers that have sued about the plan have been harmed — in other words, whether they have standing to sue. If not, the court may never reach the central legal issue of Biden’s authority.
Even some conservatives acknowledge that the plaintiffs are in an unusual position. Two borrowers say they didn’t get enough debt relief. Six conservative states argue in part that a state-created entity servicing student loans will lose revenue under the plan.
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“There are very strong arguments that neither party is standing firm,” said Mark Rahdert, a law professor at Temple University.
The government counters that the Missouri credit services company is separate from the state and therefore cannot be used by the state to establish the position. And the individual borrowers who say they’re not getting enough relief now would get nothing if the court ruled in their favor.
If the Supreme Court sides with the states, Rahdert said, it could open the floodgates to all kinds of lawsuits from conservative and liberal states.
“It would basically allow any dissatisfied state to have a national policy binding in court,” Rahdert said. “The long-term effects of this are pretty serious.”
Is COVID-19 still a national emergency?
Former President Donald Trump declared a national emergency in 2020 in response to COVID-19, unlocking additional powers for himself and later for his successor.
It was this emergency that allowed the Department of Education to carry out its loan forgiveness program. But Biden announced in January that he intended to end the state of emergency on May 11.
The Supreme Court recently removed another case from its calendar based on a separate public health emergency that the White House will also phase out in May. This case concerned the Title 42 program, which allows for the expeditious deportation of migrants.
So can student loan forgiveness continue even after the emergency is over?
Biden says it can. The law, his attorneys say, covers Americans who found themselves in economic hardship “as a direct result” of the emergency, regardless of whether the emergency still exists.
The plaintiffs object to this reading. The link between the program and the pandemic is “tenuous,” they argue, and an “excuse for the president to make good on his campaign promise.”