The Supreme Court on Tuesday heard oral arguments in two challenges to President Joe Biden’s student debt relief plan, and some conservative justices appeared to question the government’s authority to discharge millions of dollars in federally held loans. .
If the conservatives ultimately rule in favor of the policy’s opponents, the hearing indicated they will have to grapple with the legal questions about why states and individual borrowers should be allowed to sue under the program — questions that arose as a flash point during the program. arguments.
Millions of qualifying student borrowers could have up to $20,000 of their debt canceled depending on the outcome of the arguments. How and when the justices rule will also determine when payments on federal student loans will resume after a pandemic-related pause was put in place nearly three years ago.
In Biden v. Nebraska, a Republican-led group of states argued that the administration overstepped its authority by using the pandemic as an excuse to hide the real goal of fulfilling a campaign promise to wipe out student loan debt.
The second case is The Department of Education v. Brown, who initially brought two individuals who did not qualify for the program and argues that the government failed to follow the proper rulemaking process in implementing it.
Here are the takeaways from the oral arguments:
In the questions posed by the conservative justices, they indicated that they see the state GOP case as another opportunity for the court to draw the lines around how the executive branch can and cannot act without Congress.
Many of the exchanges involved the application of the so-called “Great Questions Doctrine,” a legal theory embraced by the court’s Republican appointees that says Congress can be expected to speak with specificity when it is the power of an agency to do something political or big. economic importance.
The states are arguing that Biden’s student debt program should be blocked under the doctrine.
Chief Justice John Roberts told US Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar that the case “presents very important and serious questions about the role of Congress.”
Justice Brett Kavanaugh asked Prelogar to compare the dispute to cases in the court’s history where the court ultimately pushed back against a government’s claim that a national emergency justified aggressive, unilateral action by the executive branch . And Judge Neil Gorsuch asked Nebraska Solicitor General James Campbell, who is representing the red states, a series of questions that seemed aimed at helping the court further the doctrine.
Whether GOP states are threatened with the kind of harm that makes it appropriate for a court to intervene has been a big theme. Campbell received a series of questions – from judges on both sides of the ideological spectrum – about whether the states had crossed this procedural threshold, known as “standing”.
A particular flashpoint in the hearing was the states’ arguments that the loan forgiveness program harms MOHELA – the entity created in Missouri that services loans in the state – which gives Missouri standing. Some judges noted that MOHELA could have filed its own lawsuit challenging the program, but has not.
“Ordinarily, we don’t allow one person to step into another person’s shoes and say, ‘I think that person suffered harm,’ even if the harm is great,” Justice Elena Kagan told Campbell. “So why isn’t MOHELA responsible for deciding whether to bring this suit?”
Judge Amy Coney Barrett has stood out among conservatives for specifically asking questions of GOP states about their argument positions, making it possible to pick up a vote for the court’s three liberal members.
“If MOHELA is an arm of the state, why didn’t you just strong arm MOHELA and say you have to pursue this suit,” Barrett asked Campbell, among several questions she asked him about standing claims the states.
Even if Barrett swings to liberals to vote that the lawsuit should be rejected because of the standing concerns, the Biden administration will need one more GOP-appointed justice vote.
In an extended statement to Campbell, Justice Sonia Sotomayor laid out the practical implications of the case in stark terms.
“There are 50 million students – who will benefit from this. Who today will be struggling. Many do not have enough assets to bail them out after the pandemic. They don’t have friends or family or other people who can help them make these payments,” she said. Those debtors will suffer in ways that others will not because of the pandemic, she said.
“And what you are saying now is that we will give judges the right to decide on the amount of assistance to be given to them instead of the person with the expertise and experience of the Education secretary who was at discussion of educational matters and the problems associated with it. student loans,” she said.
This story is breaking and will be updated.