People rally in support of the Biden administration’s student debt relief plan in front of the the U.S. Supreme Court on February 28, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images
The Supreme Court began hearing arguments Tuesday morning in the first of two cases challenging the Biden administration’s plan to forgive an estimated $400 billion or more in federal student loan debt for tens of millions of Americans.
President Joe Biden unveiled the plan, which would wipe out up to $20,000 in loans for certain borrowers, last year.
Early in the hearing, Chief Justice John Roberts questioned Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, who is defending the program, about the argument by the plaintiffs that Congress needed to approve the debt relief first before it was set in motion. That did not happen in this case.
“Do you think Congress shouldn’t be surprised when half a trillion dollars gets wiped off the books?” asked Roberts, who is part of the court’s conservative supermajority.
“I think most casual observers would say if you’re going to give up that amount of money … then Congress should” have to approve that, Roberts later said.
A liberal justice, Sonia Sotomayor, echoed that, asking Prelogar how she would deal with “the amount at issue,” which plaintiffs argue triggers the so-called major questions doctrine. Under that doctrine, the Supreme Court has said previously said that Congress must approve a federal agency’s action on an issue of major national significance.
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Prelogar answered that the amount of money at stake “can’t be the sole measure triggering the major questions doctrine.”
“National policies these days frequently involve substantial cost or trigger political controversy,” she added.
Prelogar argued that the debt relief is allowed under the Heroes Act, which allows the secretary of Education to alleviate hardship that federal student loan recipients could suffer due to national emergencies.
The Biden administration used the public health emergency from the Covid pandemic as the basis for the program.
The first case argued Tuesday was lodged by Republican attorneys general for six states. The second case, filed by two members of the public, says the Biden administration violated federal rules by issuing the debt relief plan without first seeking formal public comment on it.
In both cases, the Department of Justice has said the plaintiffs lack legal standing to challenge the program. The administration has argued that the plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate that they are negatively affected by the plan, which would forgive up to $20,000 in debt per borrower.
If the Supreme Court finds that either set of plaintiffs has such standing, it can then rule on the merits of the plan itself.
Experts have said they expect the high court to overturn the plan if it finds there is standing, because of the presence of six conservatives on the bench.
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