Supreme Court questions if Biden plan for student loan relief is legal

Key Points
  • The Supreme Court heard arguments about the student loan debt relief program enacted by the Biden administration.
  • The plan would forgive an estimated $400 billion in debt for tens of millions of Americans.
  • The plaintiffs challenging the plan include a group of Republican state attorneys general who argued that Congress needs to approve such a loan waiver.
People rally in support of the Biden administration's student debt relief plan in front of the the U.S. Supreme Court on February 28, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday on two cases challenging the Biden administration's plan to forgive without congressional action an estimated $400 billion or more in federal student loan debt for tens of millions of Americans.

President Joe Biden unveiled the plan, which would wipe out up to $20,000 in loans for certain borrowers, last year, citing the Covid-19 pandemic emergency as justification.

But the plan has been blocked from taking effect since the fall due to a federal appeals court injunction after arguments about whether plaintiffs in both cases even had met the legal threshold, known as standing, of showing they would be harmed by the program.

Experts have said they expect the high court to overturn the plan if it finds there is standing, because of the presence of six conservatives on the bench.

Early in the hearing, Chief Justice John Roberts questioned Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, who argued for the administration, about the plaintiffs' claims Congress needed to first approve the debt relief before it was set in motion.

"You think because there's a provision to allow waiver when your school closes, that because of that Congress shouldn't have been surprised when half a trillion dollars gets wiped off the books?" asked Roberts, who is part of the court's conservative six-justice supermajority.

"I think most casual observers would say if you're going to give up that amount of money ... then Congress should" have to approve that, Roberts later said.

A liberal justice, Sonia Sotomayor, echoed that, asking Prelogar how she would deal with "the amount at issue," which plaintiffs argue triggers the so-called major questions doctrine.

Under that doctrine, the Supreme Court has said previously that Congress must approve a federal agency's action on an issue of major national significance.

Prelogar answered that the amount of money at stake "can't be the sole measure triggering the major questions doctrine."

"National policies these days frequently involve substantial cost or trigger political controversy," she added.

Prelogar argued that the debt relief is allowed under the Heroes Act of 2003, which empowers the secretary of Education to alleviate the hardship that federal student loan recipients could suffer due to national emergencies.

The Biden administration used the public health emergency from the Covid pandemic as the basis for the program. The Heroes Act is a product of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and an earlier version of it provided relief to federal student loan borrowers affected by the attacks.

The plan has proved popular with borrowers around the United States, some of whom traveled to Washington, D.C., to demonstrate outside the court before the arguments began.

"Death to student debt" and "Student debt cancellation is legal" read signs carried by the demonstrators.

A sign calling for student loan debt relief is seen outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 28, 2023.
Nathan Howard | Reuters

Nebraska Solicitor General Jim Campbell, who argued on behalf of Republican attorneys general for six states challenging the plan, told the justices that "never before has the Heroes Act been used to forgive a single loan."

Campbell said that Education Secretary Miguel Cardona's use of the act to alleviate student loan debt was "breathtaking."

"He needs clear congressional authorization for such power, which he doesn't have because the Heroes Act does not authorize this program," Campbell said. "This court should declare this program unlawful."

"This is a program that affects 95% of borrowers regardless of how they were affected by the pandemic," he said.

But Justice Elena Kagan told Campbell that the text of the Heroes Act — which Congress voted to approve — gave the Education secretary expansive authority to forgive debt during an emergency.

"Congress could not have made this much more clear," said Kagan, one of the court's three liberal justices.

The second case, filed by two members of the public, says the Biden administration violated federal rules by issuing the debt relief plan without first seeking formal public comment on it.

In both cases, the Department of Justice says the plaintiffs lack legal standing to challenge the program.

The administration has argued that the plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate that they are negatively affected by the plan, which would forgive up to $20,000 in debt per borrower.

And, the two plaintiffs in the second case "cannot go to court to make themselves and everyone else worse off" than they would be if the plan took effect, Prelogar told the justices.

Campbell in his opening argument addressed the question of standing, saying that Missouri's student loan authority, known by the acronym MOHELA, is "a state-created, state-controlled public entity."

Missouri is one of the states suing the Biden administration to block the plan.

And its invocation of alleged harm to MOHELA might be the sole reason that the challenge survives the question of standing at the Supreme Court.

Campbell said that MOHELA would lose about 40% of its operating revenue if the debt relief plan went into effect.

But Prelogar argued that MOHELA could actually see a net financial gain from the debt relief plan because of the structure of the program.

Kagan challenged Campbell on whether Missouri has the right to base its suit on claims of harm related to MOHELA, which itself is not a plaintiff in the case.

"Usually we don't allow someone else to step into another's shoes," said Kagan, a member of the court's three-justice liberal block.

Campbell said, "We don't deny MOHELA could file a suit like that," but repeatedly argued that the agency is a creature of the state, and that Missouri was legally empowered to make claims on its behalf.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett later pressed Campbell on the point, asking him why Missouri was in court in the case, as opposed to MOHELA.

"MOHELA's not here because the state is asserting its interests," he said.

Sotomayor questioned how Missouri could use MOHELA as the basis for standing in the case, given the state's arm's-length relationship to the agency.

"It would be odd for us to have a state say 'We're creating a corporation. We're not going to be responsible for its debts. We're not going to be responsible for any of its contracts. We're not going to be responsible for anything it does financially,'" Sotomayor said. "And the state itself says 'this is not the state, it's an independent corporation.' And we're going to say instead, that it is the state, correct?"

Barrett, who is a conservative, continued, "Why didn't the state just make MOHELA come here ... why didn't you strong-arm MOHELA?"

Campbell replied, "That is a question of state politics."

Justice Neil Gorsuch, another conservative, raised a point that many Republicans have made in criticizing the plan, one based on the fairness of forgiving billions of dollars of debt to people who willingly borrowed that money to attend colleges and universities.

"What I think they argue, that is missing, is cost to other persons in terms of fairness, for example, people who've paid their loans, people who don't ... have planned their lives around not seeking loans, and people who are not eligible for loans in the first place," he said.

"And that half a trillion dollars is being diverted to one group of favored persons over others," Gorsuch said.

But Sotomayor warned against the idea of having the court limit the power to forgive the debt that the Biden administration argues has been explicitly authorized by Congress in the Heroes Act.

"That really has us as the third branch of government, changing Congress' words because we don't think we like what's happening," Sotomayor said.

"There's 50 million students who ... will benefit from this, who today will struggle," she said.

"Many of them don't have assets sufficient to bail them out after the pandemic. They don't have friends or families or others who can help them make these payments," Sotomayor said. "The evidence is clear that many of them will have to default, their financial situation will be even worse because once you default, the hardship on you is exponentially greater."

"And what you're saying is, now we're going to give judges the right to decide how much aid to give them," she said.

Outside the courthouse, Jamie Pipik, a 20-year-old Akron, Ohio, resident, showed up to support the plan.

Pipik said that having grown up in a wealthy suburb she was fortunate enough not to have to borrow for her education.

But she said she was fighting for the majority of Americans who have no choice but to go into debt if they want to attend college.

"Everyone should have the opportunity to become who they want to become, and canceling student debt would make that more possible," Pipik said. "I hope they decide to get rid of student debt and lift that weight."

— Annie Nova reported from Washington, D.C., and Dan Mangan reported from New York.