Conservative justices question Biden student loan forgiveness plan

United States Supreme Court Building (IBJ file photo)

Conservative justices holding the Supreme Court’s majority pressed skeptical questions Tuesday about President Joe Biden’s plan to wipe away or reduce student loans held by millions of Americans.

The high court, with its 6-3 conservative majority, heard arguments on two challenges to the plan, which has so far been blocked by Republican-appointed judges on lower courts.

Arguments were scheduled to last two hours but were likely to go much longer.

Several conservative justices spent time grilling the Biden administration’s top Supreme Court lawyer, Elizabeth Prelogar, and suggested that the administration had exceeded its authority with the program.

Chief Justice John Roberts pointed to the wide impact and expense of the program, which is 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 that much … money. If you’re going to affect the obligations of that many Americans on a subject that’s of great controversy, they would think that’s something for Congress to act on,” Roberts said.

Roberts’ fellow conservative, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, suggested that the administration was using an “old law” to unilaterally implement a debt relief program that Congress had rejected. He said the situation was familiar: “In the wake of Congress not authorizing the action, the executive nonetheless doing a massive new program.”

That, he said, “seems problematic.”

Kavanaugh noted that the administration was citing the national emergency created by the coronavirus pandemic as authority for the debt relief program. But he argued that some of the “finest moments in the court’s history” have been “pushing back against presidential assertions of emergency power.”

The administration says that 26 million people have applied to have up to $20,000 in federal student loans forgiven under the plan.

“I’m confident the legal authority to carry that plan is there,” Biden said on Monday, at an event to mark Black History Month.

The president, who once doubted his own authority to broadly cancel student debt, first announced the program in August. Legal challenges quickly followed.

Republican-led states and lawmakers in Congress, as well as conservative legal interests, are lined up against the plan as a clear violation of Biden’s executive authority. Democratic-led states and liberal interest groups are backing the Democratic administration in urging the court to allow the plan to take effect.

Without it, loan defaults would dramatically increase when the pause on loan payments ends no later than this summer, the administration says. Payments were halted in 2020 as part of the response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The administration says a 2003 law, commonly known as the HEROES Act, allows the secretary of education to waive or modify the terms of federal student loans in connection with a national emergency. The law was primarily intended to keep service members from being worse off financially while they fought in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Nebraska and other states that sued say the plan is not necessary to keep the rate of defaults roughly where it was before the pandemic. The 20 million borrowers who have their entire loans erased would get a “windfall” that will leave them better off than they were before the pandemic, the states say.

Dozens of borrowers came from across the country to camp out near the court on a soggy Monday evening in hopes of getting a seat for the arguments. Among them was Sinyetta Hill, who said that Biden’s plan would erase all but about $500 of the $20,000 or so she has in student loans.

“I was 18 when I signed up for college. I didn’t know it was going to be this big of a burden. No student should have to deal with this. No person should have to deal with this,” said Hill, 22, who plans to study law after she graduates from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in May.

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8 thoughts on “Conservative justices question Biden student loan forgiveness plan

  1. The example of rationale for forgiveness here is maddening: “I didn’t know it was going to be this big of a burden” so, because she didn’t know, taxpayers should support that ignorance? What happens when she gets a mortgage – maybe with an ARM, and you don’t know what that means in practice?

    It appears this at-large forgiveness push is a consequence of the accomadtions made from the for-profit colleges loan scandal pushing a decade ago, where there were actual allegations and conclusions of deception. Absent such occurances in the university education system at-large, this amounts to coddling ignorance/irresponsibilitiy in those people such as Ms. Hill, who apparently is so distraught about fulfilling her legal obligations, she wants be a lawyer. Reality can be stranger than fiction.

    1. Just let people discharge student loan debt in bankruptcy. Treat it the same as any other debt.

    2. Chris H.
      Student debt should be treated as any other debt.
      Student debt if I’m not mistaken is the only debt you can NOT
      declare bankruptcy on.

      Talk about a racket. Lol….l

  2. I love the AP and their creative/leading headlines. This kind of goes along with the “Don’t Say Gay” headlines, although the word “Gay” is not in the bill passed by Florida. But I digress, this is about the “Biden student loan forgiveness plan”. This is not a loan forgiveness program, this is a debt transfer program. Transferring debt from people who willingly took out student loans now looking for handout/bailout to other taxpayers and the ever increasing budget deficit.

  3. “Kavanaugh noted that the administration was citing the national emergency created by the coronavirus pandemic as authority for the debt relief program. ” How much of the coronavirus relief funds have been used for everything but. This is ludicrous. The borrowers consciously signed a note for these funds. I’m also wondering how much of the student loan debt has been used for anything but student loans.