SCOTUS student debt

Activists rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court on February 28, 2023 as the justices began hearing oral arguments in a pair of cases on student debt relief.

(Photo: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Supreme Court Justices 'Cast Doubt' on Biden's Student Debt Forgiveness Plan

While Chief Justice John Roberts lamented the proposal's price tag, liberal colleague Elena Kagan said the law allowing the president to "modify or waive" student aid during national emergencies "doesn't get much clearer."

President Joe Biden's plan to forgive more than $400 billion in student loan debt to over 40 million borrowers drew criticism from conservative members of the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday as the justices heard oral arguments in a pair of cases that will decide the fate of one of the president's signature policies and impact the financial futures of millions of Americans.

Politico reports members of the high court's right-wing supermajority "repeatedly questioned whether the Education Department had the legal authority it claimed to discharge federal student loan debt to help borrowers recover economically from the national emergency spurred by Covid-19."

Chief Justice John Roberts was particularly hostile, telling U.S. Solicitor-General Elizabeth Prelogar—who was defending the administration's plan—that "we're talking about half a trillion dollars and 43 million Americans."

The Los Angeles Timesreports that most of Roberts' conservative colleagues "sounded ready to rule against the administration."

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, for example, expressed skepticism about authorizing the president to a "massive new program" based on an interpretation of the HEROES Act of 2003, which allows the Education Department to "modify or waive" student aid "in connection with a war or other military operation or national emergency."

Conversely, Justice Elana Kagan asserted that Congress "doesn't get much clearer" about the president's authority in the HEROES Act.

“We deal with congressional statutes every day that are really confusing," she said. "This one is not."

Lawyers representing Nebraska—one of the Republican-led states challenging Biden's plan—argued that the administration is using the Covid-19 pandemic as "a pretext for the president to fulfill his campaign promise" to forgive student loan debt.

Proponents of Biden's plan, meanwhile, stressed the importance of student debt relief.

"Addressing the student loan debt crisis puts money back in the pockets of families and communities who need it most," Taifa Smith Butler, president of the progressive advocacy group Dēmos, said in a statement.

"Black and Brown borrowers are disproportionately burdened by student debt, further inhibiting their ability to build wealth and economic power," she continued. "This ongoing crisis undermines the promise of higher education, leaving millions of people to put their dreams and lives on hold because of the crushing pain of student loan debt."

Lamenting that "a handful of ultraconservative officials, backed by special interest groups motivated by greed and dark money, want to bypass the president's authority at the expense of everyday working people," Smith Butler argued that "any action, plan, or agenda not rooted in equity to address the student loan debt crisis undermines America's legitimacy in being a world leader that truly cares about the future of its people."

Borrowers, activists, and U.S. lawmakers rallied on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. on Monday night and Tuesday morning to voice support for Biden's plan. Members of Congress who spoke included Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), and Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.), and Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.).

"This is about justice, this is about freedom, this is about economic security, this is about our future," said Jayapal. "Let's cancel this student debt, let's keep this movement going, and let's bring justice to everyone."

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