Court Battles

How the Biden administration will try to save its student loan relief plan at the Supreme Court

President Biden’s student loan relief plan faces a do-or-die moment on Tuesday as it reaches the Supreme Court for oral arguments. 

The up to $20,000 in debt relief that could go to millions of Americans faces two challenges: one from six Republican-led states, Biden v. Nebraska, and another from two student loan borrowers, Department of Education v. Brown. 

Biden’s plan to save one of his biggest campaign promises hinges on two arguments. 

The administration says that Education Secretary Miguel Cardona had the authority to forgive the debt under the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students (HEROES) Act.

But legal observers suggest the closer question could be whether the justices reach the merits at all. The Biden administration contends that neither group of challengers has standing, meaning the legal capacity to sue.

With the lower courts placing the plan on hold, the Biden administration now must face a conservative-majority Supreme Court in its efforts to give borrowers relief. 

Here is what you need to know about the legal issues in the two student debt relief cases:

What is the HEROES Act?

The Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students, or HEROES, Act has only recently come back into focus, but it was passed two decades ago with bipartisan support as the country headed to war following the 9/11 terror attacks.

The law gives the education secretary authority to “waive or modify” federal student financial assistance programs “as the Secretary deems necessary in connection with a war or other military operation or national emergency.”

The Trump administration began using HEROES Act authority to pause student loan payments after declaring the coronavirus pandemic a national emergency in 2020.

After Biden took office, his administration extended the emergency and the payment pause before announcing the debt relief plan last year. 

The administration has said the HEROES Act’s plain text authorizes Cardona to forgive the debts, and that his decision to do so was reasonable. He has put forward data showing that many borrowers are at risk of defaulting on their loans if the payment pause ends without the debt relief.

“The federal government provides relief to people affected by crises all the time, and that relief flows not just immediately after the crisis, but in the months and years afterwards,” said Jonathan Miller, chief program officer at the Public Rights Project, which filed a brief supporting the administration on behalf of local governments.

“So I think this is a perfectly reasonable and appropriate step for the Secretary to take, given all the information that was before him in the department at the time,” Miller added.

After the Supreme Court took up the challenges, Biden announced the COVID-19 emergency will end in May, but the administration says that doesn’t affect its debt relief plan.

Meanwhile, the administration has argued that ending the emergency moots a separate Supreme Court case involving Title 42, which limits migrants’ ability to seek asylum on public health grounds.

But the White House believes student debt relief is different because it concerns economic consequences that will persist beyond the emergency, rather than stopping the spread of disease, according to people familiar with the administration’s legal strategy.

“Our debt relief plan is needed to prevent defaults and delinquencies as student borrowers transition back to repayment after the end of the payment pause,” an administration official said. “The national emergency formally ending does not change that fact. It also does not change the legal justification for the plan.”

How have the courts ruled so far?

Federal appeals courts have blocked the plan in both cases pending further action by the Supreme Court.

In the challenge from the conservative states — Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and South Carolina — a three-judge panel on the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, all appointed by Republican presidents, issued a temporary injunction in the fall

A federal trial judge in Texas ruled in favor of the individual challengers and separately blocked the debt relief plan in November. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later upheld that ruling.

The Biden administration appealed both cases to the Supreme Court, and the justices agreed in December to take up both cases.

What do the plan’s opponents say?

Both groups of challengers contend Cardona overstepped his authority under the HEROES Act.

The individual borrowers argue he was required to provide a comment period on the proposal before implementing it.

Both groups argue the debt relief plan invokes the “major questions” doctrine, which requires Congress to speak clearly when authorizing an agency to decide matters of vast economic and political significance.

Echoing a lower court ruling, the plan’s critics assert that taking the administration’s position means the executive branch could cite the pandemic’s lingering effects even 10 years down the road to forgive the debts without consulting Congress.

“This case is not so much about the wisdom of that decision. It’s about in a democratic, self-governing society, how are we going to make these kinds of decisions?” said Casey Mattox, vice president for legal and judicial strategy at Americans for Prosperity, which filed an amicus brief supporting the challengers.

The court has cemented the major questions doctrine in three recent cases: stopping the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention’s (CDC) eviction freeze during the pandemic, blocking the Biden administration’s vaccine-or-test mandate for large employers and striking down a power plant rule last June.

Thomas Berry, editor-in-chief of “Cato Supreme Court Review” at the Cato Institute, which filed an amicus brief siding with the challengers, said the precedents give a clear indication that a majority of the justices will be skeptical of the debt relief plan.

“If they reach the merits, I would be fairly confident that the action will be struck down,” Berry said. “I think the closer question is whether they reach the merits at all.”

Biden admin argues challengers lack standing to sue

The Biden administration believes none of the plaintiffs have standing to challenge the debt relief.

Three states cited economic impacts from how some borrowers are now consolidating their loans, and four said their tax revenues will take a hit. 

Missouri shows perhaps the most compelling theory by arguing the plan will harm its student loan service, legal observers say, but the administration is likely to push back that any harm is still speculative.

“I just don’t think it really comports here, because it’s very clear that loan forgiveness ultimately is a net benefit for the states,” said Miller.

His group’s brief argues that forgiveness would make it easier for borrowers to start a business or own a home, spurring economic growth.

The two individual borrowers, who did not qualify for the relief, contend that they can bring their suit because Cardona’s failure to provide a comment period unfairly deprived them of a concrete interest.

The Biden administration asserts stopping the debt relief would not redress their injury, a component needed for standing.

“That judgment leaves Brown’s financial position unchanged; she would still receive no loan forgiveness,” the administration wrote in its brief. “And it would leave Taylor worse off than before; he would receive neither the $10,000 the plan provides nor the $20,000 he purports to seek, but instead nothing at all.”

Tags Miguel Cardona student debt relief Supreme Court

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