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Lawyers and judges spar over student loan forgiveness in Supreme Court


During a Supreme Court hearing Tuesday on the fate of President Joe Biden’s $400 billion student loan forgiveness program, judges showed skepticism about whether the sweeping program oversteps the president’s authority, even as they asked pointed questions about the question whether the opponents have the right to challenge it.

Judges questioned attorneys for the Biden administration and those seeking to reverse the program: six states, including Nebraska and Missouri, and separately excluded two student loan borrowers from the full benefits of the loan forgiveness. The court grappled with whether the Department of Education had gone beyond its jurisdiction in approving broad student loan forgiveness and whether those suing to stop the program are entitled, or entitled, to the court in the first place decide on the legality of the program.

The judges quizzed the lawyers on whether the language of the HEROES Act of 2003, which authorizes the Secretary of Education to “waive or amend” provisions of student loan programs, was sufficient to allow debt forgiveness. They also asked if the states had status and if the program was fair to people who never went to college.

Luke Herrine, a law professor at the University of Alabama School of Law, said the judges’ questions suggested the Biden administration was having a better day in court than he expected. The liberal justices sounded united in support of the administration’s arguments, while two of the conservative justices, Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh, appeared unconvinced that the states would hold, making loan forgiveness a plausible path to at least gave at least a 5-4. victory.

“I think it is quite possible that the Biden administration could win this case, either summarily or on merits, although I think the case is most likely to be accepted,” he said.

Still, the government’s case was heavily criticized by some conservative judges.

Chief Justice John Roberts, a Republican George W. Bush appointee and a member of the court’s conservative majority, said the program appeared to be stretching the definition of the word “change.”

“It may be good English to say that the French Revolution ‘altered’ the status of the French nobility, but only because there is a figure of speech known as understatement and a literary device known as sarcasm,” Roberts said.

Elena Kagan, an appointee of Democrat Barack Obama, offered a different interpretation, saying that loan forgiveness fell within the broad scope of the statute’s language.

“Congress couldn’t have made this much clearer,” she said.

The judges later clashed, when Roberts questioned why the law helped people who took loans to go to school instead of those who took loans to start lawn businesses.

“Congress passed a statute governing college loan repayments, and it did not pass a statue for lawn loan repayments,” Kagan replied a few minutes later. “That may have been the right choice or it may have been the wrong choice, but that is Congress’s choice.”

Judges spent much of the hearing examining whether student loan administrator MOHELA’s status as an independent government entity gave Missouri the right to sue on behalf of the country, or whether its independent status meant that it could itself had to sue if it wanted its best interests. represented in court. Attorney General Elizabeth Prelogar, who represents the Biden administration and the Department of Education, said student loan administrators, who make money from the federal student aid program, could challenge the loan forgiveness, but chose not to. .

The court’s ruling, which could not come until early July, will determine whether Biden’s plan to forgive up to $20,000 in federal-held loans per borrower will be allowed. The White House estimates that 40 million people are eligible, 20 million of which are in line to have their loan balances completely wiped out.

Legal experts have said the Biden administration faces an uphill battle to convince the court’s conservative majority to uphold the student loan forgiveness program. The court has so far been hostile to government agencies using their powers in new ways to fight the pandemic. In 2021, the court blocked a nationwide ban on evictions and in 2022, the court struck down a vaccine mandate for large employers, both of which Biden had justified on the threat to public health posed by COVID-19. However, the court upheld a narrower vaccine mandate for healthcare workers.

Prelogar said Congress gave the department broad authorization to forgive student loans when it passed the HEROES Act. Nebraska Attorney General Jim Campbell said the loan forgiveness program was so large and so expensive that it went beyond what lawmakers had intended when they passed the law.

Prelogar also challenged the states’ position in bringing the lawsuit in the first place, arguing that they could not demonstrate that they would be harmed by the enactment of the pardon. The states said Missouri would be harmed because MOHELA, a student loan authority, was created and controlled by the state. Prelogar countered that MOHELA, an independent company, could have sued itself if it wanted to, and legal principles prevented the state from suing on behalf of a third party.

Update, February 28, 2023 – This article has been updated post-published with analysis by Luke Herrine.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.