Supreme Court conservatives held a sharply critical hearing on Tuesday about President Biden’s plan to forgive more than $400 billion in student loans, arguing that only Congress could approve such a large amount of federal spending.
“We are talking about half a trillion dollars and 43 million Americans,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said. to Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, who defended the government. “We take the separation of powers very seriously,” he said, but Congress had not approved these expenditures. “And you say there is no role for us,” he added.
The remarks were echoed by his Conservative colleagues, most of whom sounded ready to go against the government.
In December, the judges voted to uphold lower court orders that prevented Biden’s plan from going into effect.
In the first of two cases heard on Tuesday, lawyers from six Republican-led states argued that Biden had overstepped his authority by proposing that tens of millions of student loans be suspended in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh said he was skeptical about allowing the executive branch to create “a massive new program” based on a vaguely worded old law.
He was referring to a 2003 law passed during the war in Iraq that allowed the education secretary to “change or abolish” any student aid program related to a war or other military operation or national emergency.
But before the judges can rule on Biden’s plan, they must first decide whether anyone has the legal capacity to challenge it in court. Usually, this means that a person or entity, including states, must demonstrate that they are or will be harmed by a law or government action.
Taxpayers have no legal standing to stop the government from spending money, and it’s not clear if anyone can prove they’ll be hurt if the government loses someone else’s loan.
The Solicitor General’s most effective argument was to argue that none of the states had legal status. In that case, she said, the court has no jurisdiction to decide their lawsuits.
Missouri argued that the state agency of higher education will lose money if it has to process fewer student loans. Several other Republican-led states said they could lose tax revenue if loans were wiped out. And two Texas residents who were not eligible for aid under Biden’s plan say they have lost the procedural right to appeal to the Department of Education.
Judge Amy Coney Barrett asked several questions about the status of the state, but she was the only one of the conservatives who sounded unsure about it.
Congress declined to waive some loans in 2021, but the government said last year it had all that authority under the 2003 measure. The goal of the law was to ensure that “affected individuals are not placed in a financially worse position” .
The Trump administration suspended federal student loan repayments shortly after the pandemic was declared, and those payments have not resumed under Biden.
Last year, Biden’s Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona decided that borrowers would be in a worse position if they had to resume monthly payments, and he proposed forgiving loans of up to $10,000 to eligible borrowers with a federally adjusted gross income. income of less than $125,000 or $250,000 if filed jointly.
Those who received Pell Grants generally have lower incomes, so they could be forgiven up to $20,000 under the plan.
The government says at least 40 million borrowers may be eligible for relief on some or all of their loans.
Nebraska lawyers called the focus on the pandemic “a pretext for the president to fulfill his campaign promise” to alleviate student debt. In addition to Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, Iowa and South Carolina were also members of the suit.