Experts: SCOTUS likely poised to strike down Biden's student debt relief

 April 23, 2023

Oral arguments in the challenge to President Joe Biden's sweeping student loan forgiveness plan took place at the Supreme Court in late February, and a decision will not likely be handed down until June, but several experts have indicated that the program's chances of survival are not great, as CNBC reports.

At issue is Biden's proposal to forgive up to $20,000 in federal student loans for low-income borrowers who received Pell Grants and up to $10,000 in debt for debtors who did not receive them – a giveaway that some analysts have said could cost upwards of $500 billion.

Controversial plan

As ABC News reported last year, after much deliberation and delay about the specifics of the plan, Biden announced a program that would fulfill – at least in some measure – promises he made on the presidential campaign trail.

Eligibility for the aforementioned levels of forgiveness would, under the plan, be limited to individuals earning under $125,000 per year or households with combined income of under $250,000 in the 2020 or 2021 tax year.

In arguing for the validity of the plan, the administration contends that the GOP-led states challenging it as well as the two individual borrowers doing so lack the necessary legal standing, but the justices will also be making a close examination of whether the 2003 law known as the HEROES Act conferred on the executive branch the authority to forgive loan indebtedness in this manner, as NPR noted.

The HEROES Act, however, was passed by Congress in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks and was designed to provide safeguards for federal student loan borrowers who were impacted by a national emergency, war, or another disaster, and though the administration has cited the COVID-19 pandemic as justification for its applicability, others disagree.

Experts raise doubts

In the eyes of numerous legal experts who have considered the contours of the arguments – as well as the composition of the high court – there is strong reason to doubt that the Biden plan will be allowed to stand.

Paul Collins Jr., University of Massachusetts Amherst legal studies and political science professor, said bluntly, “I expect the court will rule against the Biden administration,” pointing to the fact that he believes all six justices from the conservative flank will vote the program down, while the three liberal jurists will vote to keep it.

Steven Schwinn of the University of Illinois Chicago law school concurred, saying, “I predict the court will rule 6-3 against it, along conventional ideological lines.”

Highlighting a particular theme in the challengers' arguments, higher education expert Mark Kantrowitz said that the president may be deemed by the justices to have used COVID-19 as an excuse to make good on a campaign pledge, asking rhetorically, “For example, if it was an emergency, why wait three years to provide the forgiveness? Why present it in a political framework, as fulfilling a campaign promise?”

Are broader implications afoot?

Some of the experts quoted by CNBC seemed to attribute the outcome they see as most likely to a degree of political animus on the part of the conservatives on the bench.

Collins, for instance, opined that the right-leaning wing might decide that blocking the debt relief would be akin to “dealing a blow to Biden's historical legacy and likely reelection campaign.”

Schwinn said that if the justices do put a stop to Biden's plan, it would “only contribute further to the belief that this court is just an instrument of the modern Republican Party.”

Or, it could just be that a majority of justices agree with conservative legal advocate Carrie Severino, who declared the forgiveness scheme a “brazen breach of constitutional constraints” attempted under a “flimsy statutory pretext” – so flimsy, in fact, that even former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said back in 2021 that the president lacked the authority to do what this plan attempts.

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