Supreme Court strikes down Biden student-loan forgiveness program


On June 30, 2023 at 12:

The Supreme Court courtroom

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This article was revised on June 30th at 4:00 p.M.

Almost half of the borrowers, which is approximately 43 million Americans, would benefit from the loan forgiveness program, as stated by the Biden Administration. The Biden Administration exceeded its announced plan to cancel $400 billion in student loans last year, as ruled by a 6-3 vote by the justices.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court in Biden v. Nebraska, characterizing the decision as a straightforward interpretation of federal law.

Justice Elena Kagan disagreed, in a viewpoint joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Due to the emergency situation, the secretary of education has the authority to “exempt or modify any legal or regulatory provision” that governs the student-loan programs, ensuring that borrowers do not suffer financial setbacks. This authority was granted to the secretary of education through the HEROES Act, a legislation enacted in response to the Sept. 11 attacks. Betsy DeVos, who served as the secretary of education during the Trump administration, halted both loan repayments and the accumulation of interest on federal student loans at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Student-loan repayments had already been suspended for more than two years when the Biden administration introduced the program in August 2022.

Last year, the Biden administration came to the Supreme Court asking for justices to weigh in on the program that was put on hold in Texas and Missouri federal courts. President Joe Biden fulfilled his pledge, made during his 2020 presidential run, to permanently cancel up to $20,000 in loans for qualified borrowers.

The challengers, comprised of two individuals and six Republican state attorneys general, had urged the justices to strike down the debt-relief plan, arguing that it does not comply with other federal laws, and were questioning whether the court could reach the question of whether it had the right to determine if any of the challengers had standing before the court, but the HEROES Act.

In order for standing to exist in a lawsuit involving multiple plaintiffs harmed by the policy, there needs to be at least one plaintiff who can continue with the legal action. Simply demonstrating a disagreement with a government policy is insufficient to challenge it in a federal court.

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The court unanimously ruled in a 15-page opinion, issued shortly before the Roberts opinion in Biden v. Nebraska, that two separate borrowers did not have the right to challenge the debt-relief plan in Department of Education v. Brown.

If the program-relief debt goes into effect, the Missouri Appeals Court, which controls the Higher Education Loan Authority of Missouri, has the right to sue because it created and controls the country’s largest student loan servicers and holders. However, the ability of the company to contribute funds to support the state’s higher education programs will be limited, which the states contended could cost MOHELA as much as $44 million per year.

Three justices sitting on the bench with one speaking into a mic

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If the program of debt-relief by MOHELA goes into effect, it may necessarily impair Missouri’s efforts to aid college students, which in turn can lead to a direct injury to the state’s revenues. The State officials reasoned that if the program is observed to have this effect, MOHELA may be dissolved by the State and operated by state officials and appointees. Furthermore, the program created by MOHELA to help state residents obtain student loans may also harm Missouri’s college students by creating financial harms from the program. On Friday, the justices upheld the ruling that Missouri has standing to challenge the program of debt-relief by MOHELA, finding that it harms Missouri.

According to Roberts, the French Revolution “modified” the status of the French nobility in the same sense that an entirely new regime supplanted and abolished it. However, Roberts emphasized the need for a fundamentally different and innovative approach, suggesting the creation of a novel loan forgiveness program instead. He wrote that the Biden administration has the power to “modify” and “waive” the regulations and laws governing Congress’s student loan programs by making modest adjustments and additions to existing provisions. The court agreed with the challengers that the program should comply with federal law, and Missouri, along with other states, had the right to challenge the debt relief program.

Rejecting the notion, Roberts mentioned that the secretary does not indicate the act of waiving a particular provision. Roberts observed that a specific legal obligation, like a written appeal from a student, serves as an instance of a requirement that the secretary has previously invoked while exercising this authority. Roberts dismissed the claim made by the Biden administration that the secretary of education possesses the power to “waive” laws and regulations pertaining to the student-loan program.

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Roberts also rejected Biden administration’s argument that the Act HEROES is consistent with the program debt-relief.

It is important that the public is not misled by any misperception that this institution would be harmful. We should not mistake this heartfelt disagreement for disparagement. It is reasonable for minds to disagree with our analysis, including the justices of the liberal court. While Chief Justice Roberts insisted on relying on traditional tools of judicial decisionmaking in Friday’s decision, it has become disturbing that some recent opinions criticize these decisions, going beyond the proper role of the judiciary. Chief Justice Roberts concluded his opinion on page 26 with a discussion of the broader dynamics of the court, which appeared to be directed at both his colleagues and the public’s perception of the court.

The conclusion reached by the Biden administration’s power to adopt the debt-relief plan is not necessary, but it does reinforce the major questions of the HEROES Act that the court’s doctrine emphasizes. Chief Justice Roberts joined Justice Barrett’s separate concurring opinion, which also emphasized the major questions of the doctrine.

The HEROES Act, which has been granted by Congress, appears to have gone far beyond what the Biden administration intended. In this case, Judge Barrett suggests that judges should consider whether it makes common sense for Congress to delegate administrative authority to the agency. She also suggests that judges should use the natural interpretation of the text to determine the kind of questions that Congress intended to delegate to the administrative agency. The doctrine that guides judges in this determination is a tool that can be used to determine the most consistent and logical interpretation of the text. However, Justice Kagan has expressed concerns about the inconsistent nature of this doctrine, as discussed in her opinion last year. Barrett generally takes the charge seriously and indicates that major questions about the doctrine need to be addressed.

Kagan expressed that despite the possibility of MOHELA initiating its own legal action, it chose not to do so. Since MOHELA would be the party adversely affected by the debt-relief plan, rather than Missouri, she clarified that the standing concept put forth by the states and supported by the majority “identifies MOHELA as the appropriate plaintiff.” Given that none of the states had the right to take legal action, Kagan argued that the court should not have considered the substance of the claims made by the states.

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The secretary argued that due to the lack of capability to effectively handle large-scale emergencies, the Act becomes insignificant. She maintained that the majority’s opposing viewpoint is based solely on dissecting the statute and considering each part of Congress’s authorization in isolation. According to her, the Biden administration’s actions grant the Secretary extensive power to provide emergency assistance to borrowers of student loans, which may involve modifying the usual discharge regulations – this is in line with the Act. Furthermore, she asserted that the debt-relief program is sanctioned by the wording of the HEROES Act, regardless.

Kagan argued that the Supreme Court, as the arbiter and national policy-maker, is a major problem for democracy and governance. She asserted that Congress needs to have the ability to address and keep up with changing circumstances and times, and to rely on their own expertise and the expertise of various agencies. Kagan explained that Congress often delegates to agencies for a broad variety of reasons. She also argued that the exercise of administrative power raises concerns about the court’s own decision-making. Kagan’s aim in invoking the court’s major doctrine questions in Friday’s decision reflects these concerns.

In a statement issued by President Joe Biden at the White House, it was indicated that he has taken steps to address the situation and help the students. He planned to discuss the “decision” further and emphasized that this fight will not be over.

Our elected federal representatives are entrusted with the difficult task of tackling policy issues and have the power of the purse. They are the closest people to the citizens. Instead of working around Congress, the decision on Friday serves as a timely reminder that the President is not a “king,” as stated in Attorney General Mike Hilgers’ statement. He highlighted that Congress should not work around and instead collaborate. Hilgers is one of the state officials who brought the challenge to the program.

This article was initially published on Howe on the Court.

Recommended Citation: Amy Howe, Supreme Court invalidates Biden program for forgiving student loans, SCOTUSblog (Jun. 30, 2023, 12:31 PM

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