Republican officials around the country are discussing legal actions to challenge President Joe Biden’s student loan debt relief program. Announced last week, the Biden plan provides as much as $10,000 in student loan debt relief for individuals earning less than $125,000 a year ($250,000 for couples) and up to $20,000 for borrowers who received Pell Grants, which typically are awarded to students from low- and middle-income households.
Lawsuits intended to invalidate or slow the relief program have been discussed by Republican attorneys general from multiple states, including Arizona, Missouri and Texas, The Washington Post’s Tony Romm, Jeff Stein and Danielle Douglas-Gabriel report. Other conservatives and right-wing groups – including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), the Heritage Foundation and the Job Creators Network – are mulling their own legal actions.
While no lawsuits have been filed yet, the legal challenges are expected to focus on the president’s legal authority to unilaterally dismiss student loan debt. The Biden administration says it has that authority under a 2003 law that gives the executive branch the ability to revamp student loan programs during a national emergency, which White House officials say applies during the pandemic.
Republicans say that the Biden administration is overstepping its authority. They also charge that the relief plan is fiscally irresponsible and unfair to those who repaid their loans and to those who have never gone to college.
Finding a complainant that has legal standing to sue – that is, someone who has been harmed by the program – is proving to be a hurdle for the Republican effort. “The difficulty here is finding a plaintiff who the courts will conclude has standing,” Cruz said. “That may prove a real challenge.” Conservative legal operators “have to find a client with the standing and the gumption to take on a lawsuit,” John Malcolm of the Heritage Foundation told the Post. “There are several groups in our network who are exploring that right now.”
Assuming Republicans can clear that hurdle, some legal experts say that a suit challenging the president’s legal authority could stand a good chance of succeeding – especially if the case makes it to the Supreme Court, now dominated by conservatives who show no sign of shying away from politically charged decisions.
Fordham Law School professor Jed Handelsman Shugerman, who said he supports the Biden policy, told the Post that the national emergency argument the White House is relying on is weak. “If they keep going with this argument and this interpretation of the statute, it is likely they will lose 6 to 3, and it’s possible they could lose by more than 6 to 3,” Shugerman said, referring to a possible Supreme Court vote. “I foresee this good policy being rightly struck down by the courts on legal terms.”
Other legal experts say that whatever the strength of the argument about executive authority, Republicans may not be able to solve the basic problem of finding someone who has standing to sue in the first place. “It's very unlikely that any of these groups can prove they've suffered any legally cognizable injury that would provide them standing to challenge those actions,” Abby Shafroth of the National Consumer Law Center told Insider.
Whatever the outcome, the fact that Republicans are pursuing legal action means that borrowers who would benefit from the program can’t be entirely sure that their debts will be forgiven. Even if the courts ultimately reject Republican lawsuits, there could be delays in the program taking effect as judges sift through the claims and counterclaims. “The uncertainty for borrowers in the meantime is, I’m afraid, considerable,” Laurence Tribe, a Harvard law professor, told CNBC.