WASHINGTON — For months, the Biden administration’s ambitious plan to pay off billions of dollars in student loan debt has been frozen, blocked by lower courts, and its fate left in the hands of skeptical conservative justices on the Supreme Court.
Decision day is fast approaching.
The stakes are high, with 43 million people eligible for up to $20,000 in debt relief.
The total cost if the program ever goes into effect has been estimated at more than $400 billion, with the administration estimating than 20 million people would have all remaining student loan debt paid off.
The proposal is also politically important to President Joe Biden, as tackling student loan debt was a key promise he made on the 2020 campaign trail to energize younger voters.
But with a conservative-majority Supreme Court suspicious of the executive branch’s sweeping claims, Biden’s plan faces a major hurdle.
“We fought hard to get to this place, where the president has promised historic debt relief. We still have hope that the Supreme Court will rule in favor of people with student debt, but we also have clear eyes,» said Mike Pierce, executive director of the Student Borrower Protection Center, an advocacy group that works to alleviate debt. of student loans.
The two cases over Biden’s debt relief plan are among 30 the Supreme Court has stopped ruling in its current term, which traditionally ends in the last week of June.
The court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, is also set to rule on a number of other big issues, most notably another education-related dispute that could end consideration of race in college admissions. .
The next day the court issues its rulings is expected to be Thursday, the first day of June, with decisions coming quickly for the rest of the month.
The flurry of rulings will bring the court back into the spotlight a year after the conservative majority flexed its muscles by overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade and expand gun rights. In the months since, some have questioned the court’s legitimacy and ethical questions have been raised about some of its members, notably Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas.
During oral arguments in the student loan cases in February, conservative justices expressed doubts about whether the Biden administration had the authority to forgive large amounts of student debt. The court is considering two cases, one brought by Missouri and five other states and the other brought by two people who have student loan debt.
The challengers say the administration’s proposal, announced by Biden in August and originally scheduled to take effect last fall, violated the Constitution and federal law, in part because it bypassed Congress, which they said has the sole power to create laws related to student loan forgiveness.
The administration has proposed forgiving up to $10,000 in debt for borrowers making less than $125,000 a year (or couples filing jointly and making less than $250,000 a year). Pell Grant recipients, who are the majority of borrowers, would be eligible for an additional $10,000 in debt relief.
The relief would have a significant impact, according to Alan Aja, a professor at Brooklyn College in New York who studies racial disparities in wealth and signed a report in support of the administration.
People like his students, often members of low-income minority groups, would be more likely to finish their education or consider more ambitious job opportunities or be able to pay off other debts if Biden’s plan goes into effect, he said.
«In their minds, it would be transformative,» Aja added.
In defending the plan, the Biden administration cited a 2003 law called the Higher Education Opportunities for Student Relief Act, or HEROES Act, which says the government can provide relief to student loan recipients when there is a «national emergency.» «, allowing you to act to ensure that people are not «in a worse financial position» as a result of the emergency.
Challengers say the language in the HEROES Act is not specific enough to authorize a proposal as broad as Biden’s plan, an argument that conservative justices appeared sympathetic to.
It seems the only way for the Biden administration to prevail would be if the court were to conclude that the challengers do not have the legal standing to bring their cases in the first place because they cannot show that the program would harm them.
If the administration were to win the case, it would not remove all possible impediments to the plan moving forward, as there are other cases pending in lower courts, but if the challengers do not have legal standing, it would suggest that other individuals and entities bring cases that are not likely to either. they do it.
Ilya Somin, a professor at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia School of Law, said a ruling in Biden’s favor on the ongoing issue «will likely doom» all other cases, although other people or entities who have not yet sued are could go better.
‘Pull my hair out’
In the affirmative action cases, conservative justices indicated they favored ending consideration of race in college admissions in legal challenges arising from the University of North Carolina and Harvard University.
A ruling in this regard could lead to a significant drop in the admissions of blacks and Hispanics to the most selective universities in the country and accelerate changes in the criteria used to recruit students.
Other cases that judges will rule on in the coming weeks include Alabama and North Carolina congressional redistricting disputes that could further weaken the Voting Rights Act and limit court oversight of elections. state, respectively.
The court will also decide a case in which an evangelical conservative Christian web designer wants to avoid being punished under a Colorado anti-discrimination law for refusing to create same-sex wedding websites.
One topic absent from this year’s end-of-term narrative is retirement, with no speculation that any of the justices plan to step down from their lifetime appointments.
With the court facing harsh scrutiny recently, Chief Justice John Roberts was on the defensive in public statements last week, saying the court, as a separate branch of government, should be left to run its own affairs.
But with the term entering a period where justices are desperately trying to finish writing rulings while sometimes bitterly disagreeing with one another, he sought to portray an institution that’s business as usual.
“I am happy to continue to say that there has never been a voice of anger raised in our conference room,” he said.
Speaking at the same event, liberal Justice Elena Kagan, often on the losing side in the most important court cases, made a more nuanced assessment.
Although she praised Roberts’ qualities as a judge, she was candid about the wide areas of disagreement on the ideologically divided court.
On some of those topics, he said: «I could really pull my hair out over the things he thinks about.»