WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court battle over President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan is about more than debt relief for 40 million Americans.
As the high court begins to take up Biden’s $400 billion student loan plan through hours of oral arguments, much of the debate over presidential power will linger below the surface on Tuesday.
The court’s decision, expected later this year, could torpedo Biden’s ability to unilaterally pursue other policies such as abortion and immigration. And that could be tricky for a president seeking re-election with an embattled Congress.
“It’s much bigger than student debt,” said Christopher Walker, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School. “It’s about the power of the courts and the power of the president.”
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What the justices signal about that balance of power is one of many lingering questions the nation’s highest court will answer — or at least hint at — when Biden’s debt plan gets its day in court. Here are some more:
Is Biden’s Student Loan Plan Dead?
Biden’s debt relief plan, a campaign promise, would forgive up to $20,000 of student loan debt for Pell Grant recipients and up to $10,000 for multiple borrowers.
The effort has been stalled since a federal court blocked its implementation in October.
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At the conclusion of the Supreme Court’s oral arguments on Tuesday, 40 million Americans will know whether they will ever benefit from the plan. Advocates supporting the initiative are walking into the courtroom with frustration — but hope.
“Borrowers want to know the fate of their student loans,” said Natalia Abrams, president of the Student Loan Crisis Center, which advocates for borrowers. “But the law is on our side and that’s what keeps us going.”
But the Job Creators Network Foundation, one of the groups challenging Biden’s plan, sees it instead as an illegal power grab.
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“If this is allowed, it will give this president — and every future president — a blank check without any input from Congress or the American people,” said committee chair Elaine Parker.
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Federal courts have limited federal agencies’ efforts to make significant policy decisions without the express approval of Congress.
In a high-profile instance in June, the Supreme Court used the “critical questions doctrine” to strike down tighter rules on power plant emissions.
Under that theory, courts will invalidate regulations that have a major impact on the economy, are of great “political importance” and are not expressly authorized in law.
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Biden’s attorneys insist the doctrine doesn’t apply to the student loan controversy. Federal law, they told the Supreme Court, empowers the government to “relax or modify” credit rules to help Americans affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We feel very confident,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday. “We see this as an important policy that will help tens of thousands of Americans.”
But many professionals outside of management are very limited. The statute does not expressly discuss the power to “forgive” debts. No previous administration has read that way.
Walker predicted that if the court came down to key questions of doctrine, Biden would lose.
“It’s very good,” he said. “It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Biden administration is using an old law that was passed to deal with something different in a very broad, comprehensive way.”
Hope to get student loan relief?
Biden’s case isn’t hopeless: Some experts believe the administration has a good chance of convincing the Supreme Court that the wrong plaintiffs have sued for the wrong reasons.
If a majority of the court agrees, Biden could score a narrow victory.
A threshold question for the justices to decide is whether states and individual borrowers who sued the program are harmed by it — in other words, if they sue. Otherwise, the Court may never reach the central legal issue of Biden’s authority.
too Some conservatives agree Plaintiffs are in an unusual position. Two borrowers say they didn’t get enough loan relief. Six conservative states argue, in part, that a state-created agency that services student loans would lose revenue under the plan.
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“It’s a very strong case that neither party has standing,” said Mark Rahtert, a law professor at Temple University.
The government counters that the Missouri Loan Servicing Agency is separate from the state and therefore cannot be used by the state to establish. Personal loan borrowers who now claim insufficient relief will get nothing if the court rules in their favor.
If the Supreme Court sided with the states, Rahdert said, it would open the floodgates to all kinds of cases from conservative and liberal states.
“Essentially whichever state is unhappy … it will help bind national policy to the courts,” Rahdert said. “The long-term implications of that are very serious.”
Is COVID-19 still a national emergency?
Former President Donald Trump declared a national emergency A response to Covid-19 in 2020 – unlocking additional powers for him and then his successor.
It was that emergency that allowed the Department of Education to implement its loan forgiveness program. But Biden announced in January that he wanted to end the state of emergency on May 11.
The Supreme Court recently removed from its calendar another case based on a separate public health emergency that the White House will also expire in May. That case dealt with the Title 42 program, which allows expedited removal of immigrants.
So can student loan forgiveness continue even after the emergency is over?
Biden says he can. His lawyers say the law covers Americans who have experienced economic hardship as a “direct result” of the emergency, regardless of whether the emergency is still in effect.
Plaintiffs stumble on that reading. They argue that the link between the plan and the pandemic is “tenuous” and “an excuse for the president to fulfill his campaign promise.”