U.S. Supreme Court
Student debt relief meets with skepticism from majority of Supreme Court justices
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President Joe Biden’s plan to cancel $400 billion in student debt appeared to run into trouble during U.S. Supreme Court oral arguments Tuesday.
A majority of the justices appeared to think that Biden didn’t have the authority to cancel the debt under a law called the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, or the HEROES Act. The law allows waivers and modifications of student-aid programs during national emergencies.
Biden has asserted that the COVID-19 pandemic was such an emergency.
Publications covering the arguments included Politico, the New York Times, the Washington Post and Reuters.
As many as 40 million borrowers were expected to qualify for relief under the program. Chief Justice John Roberts suggested that the HEROES Act didn’t provide sufficient authority for such wide-reaching changes, according to Washington Post.
“I think most casual observers would say if you’re going to give up that much amount of money, if you’re going to affect the obligations of that many Americans on a subject that’s of great controversy, they would think that’s something for Congress to act on,” Roberts said.
The Supreme Court is considering two challenges. One was filed by six Republican-led states, and the other was filed by two people who say they are being unfairly excluded from the program or ineligible for the highest level of relief.
Biden’s program allows debt forgiveness on up to $10,000 in federal student debt for people who make less than $125,000 per year as an individual or less than $250,000 per year in their household. Those who received Pell Grants would be eligible for up to $20,000 in debt relief.
According to the Washington Post, “the best hope” for the Biden administration would be a finding that none of the plaintiffs has standing to challenge the program.
“But it seemed likely there would be a majority on the court ready to move on to the merits of the cases,” according to the Washington Post.
One issue in the case is whether the “major questions” doctrine prevents Biden from acting. The doctrine says federal agencies can’t act on questions of vast economic or political significance absent clear direction from Congress.
Arguing for the United States, U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar said the major questions doctrine doesn’t apply when the government is providing benefits, rather than imposing regulations, according to Bloomberg Law.
Justice Samuel Alito pushed back on the assertion.
Prelogar’s distinction “seems to presume that, when it comes to the administration of benefits programs, a trillion dollars here, a trillion dollars there, it doesn’t really make that much difference to Congress,” Alito said. “That doesn’t seem very sensible.”
The cases are Biden v. Nebraska and Department of Education v. Brown.
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