The Supreme Court on Tuesday heard arguments about President Joe Biden’s plan to forgive more than $400 billion of student debt over 30 years, and by most accounts, it didn’t go well for the administration.
The conservative justices, who hold a 6-3 advantage on the court, seemed “unsatisfied” with the argument offered by U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar that the program reflects the will of Congress, which in 2003 authorized the executive branch to provide student debt relief in times of emergency, The Washington Post’s Robert Barnes, Danielle Douglas-Gabriel and Ann E. Marimow write.
Chief Justice John Roberts made it clear that he doubted that the administration, as part of its response to the Covid-19 pandemic, was merely modifying the 2003 law, as allowed by the statute. Quoting former Justice Antonin Scalia, Roberts said: “‘Modify,’ in our view, connotes moderate change. It might be good English to say that the French Revolution ‘modified’ the status of the French nobility, but only because there is a figure of speech called understatement and a literary device known as sarcasm.”
"We're talking about half a trillion dollars and 43 million Americans," Roberts added. "How does that fit under the normal understanding of ‘modify?’"
The conservative justices suggested that Congress would need to be involved explicitly in the creation of such a sizeable program, which would provide as much as $20,000 in student debt relief for millions of Americans. “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,” Robert said.
The skeptical justices also questioned the fairness of the plan, which would benefit one specific group of debtors (former students) but not others (those who borrowed money to start a business instead of going to school, for example). “Why is it fair?” asked Justice Samuel Alito. “Why was it fair to the people who didn’t get arguably comparable relief?”
While some analysts think that the White House may possibly have an advantage when it comes to the issue of standing – that is, is anyone really being harmed by the plan and therefore has standing to sue? – the fact that the justices jumped into the merits of the case suggests that they may have already dismissed that angle.
The bottom line: The conservative majority on the court clearly have doubts about the legality of the debt forgiveness plan, which is currently on hold amid legal challenges. But we won’t know their decision until late June, when the current court session ends.