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Conservative Supreme Court justices took a tentative look Tuesday at President Joe Biden’s controversial plan to forgive some borrowers up to $20,000 in federal student loans and wipe out nearly half a trillion in debt.
Biden announced the plan last August, just before the midterm election. He was facing increasing pressure from Democratic lawmakers who called on the president to take executive action as it became clear that Congress could not deal with a more permanent proposal.
Whether the debt forgiveness helped Democrats overperform in that election is up for debate, but the one-sided politics of the plan was a sticking point for Supreme Court justices who were skeptical of Biden’s authority to do things without congressional approval.
RELATED: Takeaways from the arguments
One takeaway from Tuesday’s hearing that surprised me: Judge Amy Coney Barrett appeared to be a potential swing vote.
The oral arguments were in two cases challenging the program: one brought by a group of states led by Republicans and the other brought by two people who did not qualify for the full benefits of the amnesty program. Many of the conservative justices were concerned with fairness, executive outreach and the mechanism of whether states could bring their suits.
Why give this forgiveness to borrowers instead of people who worked to pay off their debt early or who couldn’t take on debt and didn’t finish college?
Those are valid questions, and the idea of debt forgiveness splits the country in half. In the national exit poll conducted for the 2022 midterm election, 50% of midterm voters, mostly Democrats, approved of Biden’s debt relief plan, while 47%, mostly Republicans, opposed it.
At Tuesday’s arguments, Justice Sonia Sotomayor was interested in the possible debt forgiveness of millions of people could affect. Many did not have the same lines of support during the pandemic as others.
“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.
The most instructive story I’ve read today about the underlying issue comes from CNN’s Elise Hammond, who crunches data to see the problem of student debt.
More than $1.6 trillion is owed, she writes, a combined figure that has skyrocketed along with the cost of higher education.
Taking the loan is an investment, as graduates tend to make more money than non-graduates. But debt can haunt people for years. Almost a quarter of the debt is owed by people aged 50 and over.
Debt forgiveness is also a way to address racial inequality because Black graduates, in particular, tend to graduate with higher debt loads, making it harder for them to take advantage of their degree.
Biden’s proposal would be a big step, but it is less thorough than the program approved by the congress, and it would take only a little off the larger balance sheet and do nothing to address the root problem, which is that’s the cost of college.
Biden authorized up to $10,000 in federal debt forgiveness for most eligible borrowers and up to a total of $20,000 for borrowers who received a Pell Grant while enrolled in college – meaning the program is aimed at people from low-income backgrounds who are trying to break into the middle class.
The interest in forgiveness is noteworthy:
- More than 40 million borrowers are eligible.
- 26 million have applied so far.
- They already have 16 million approved.
These are people from all over the country, a point the White House tried to make when it released a list of applicants by congressional district.
Chief Justice John Roberts pointed out during the arguments that something that will affect so many people and cost so much money should, to the casual observer, come from Congress.
“And if they haven’t acted on it, maybe that’s a good lesson to tell the president or the administration bureaucracy that it’s not something they should be doing alone,” Roberts said.
The administration cites 9/11-era legislation they say the education secretary approves to assume great power during a national emergency, in this case the Pandemic. But judges have recently been skeptical of Covid-related emergency arguments.
Regardless of what happens in court, at some point a pandemic-related freeze on federal student loan payments that has been in place for nearly three years will end for all borrowers. It’s time to start budgeting to bring those back deferred loan payments.
The Department of Education has said that regardless of the court’s decision, payments will be made resume as soon as 60 days after the most recent break end, on June 30, around the time the Supreme Court is expected to make its decision. That means loan payments could be required again as early as the end of August.
CNN’s Aileen Graef spoke with student debt holders who gathered outside the court Tuesday and filed this for CNN’s live story on the arguments:
Perry’s fatea first-generation college student at Morgan State University in Baltimore, living in a single-parent family of five.
“Currently, I have taken many loans. … I’m out here trying to get through college without stressing about the payments and everything else,” Perry said.
Perry said she explores scholarship opportunities to offset the debt, but she knows graduating debt-free isn’t enough.
Glen Lopez, a freshman at Morgan State, described his student debt as a “creeping feeling.” He said he thinks about hunting “every two or three days.”
Representative Ayanna Pressley CNN said she knows about student debt first hand.
“Well, what I was sharing is a story that is not an anomaly at all. This is a systemic crisis — a nearly $2 trillion crisis that hurts people from all walks of life,” the Massachusetts Democrat said.
“Like those millions of Black borrowers – growing up in a single-parent family – and in the face of financial pressure, I had no choice but to get those loans. Ultimately, I defaulted on those loans and paid them off, but it took me 20 more years to do so. And I was gainfully employed and often living paycheck to paycheck and couldn’t make ends meet. I couldn’t go on,” she said.
In response to opponents’ arguments that people should pay off the loans they get, Pressley said “hardship is not a character flaw.”
“And despite Herculean efforts to get people working in several jobs, and costs rising, people are running out of water. They are drinking water, and we can do something to ease this burden and this hardship,” she said.
There is a separate and extremely important question about whether the six Republican states as well as the two borrowers that you have “standing” to bring the cases – meaning the legal right to bring the disputes in the first place. In fact, residents of those states would benefit from the amnesty.
CNN legal analyst Steve Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told CNN’s Kate Bolduan that if the Supreme Court approves the six red states, it could open a new era of legal challenges in their states. overloading the legal system and protests against all presidential actions.
“Does their hostility to this program seriously weaken the historical limits on standing?” That’s a question the judges will have to grapple with, according to Vladeck, arguing that they could also decide that this is a political question to be decided at the ballot box.