Supreme Court Strikes Down Biden's Student Loan Program

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
June 30, 2023

The Supreme Court on Friday blocked President Joe Biden's student loan forgiveness plan in a 6-3 decision that ruled the White House lacked the authority to eliminate debt for over 40 million borrowers.

In a 6-3 decision authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court skewered the Biden administration's claim that the Education Department had the authority to forgive loans under the HEROES Act, a 2003 law meant to provide debt relief to soldiers "in connection with a war or other military operation or national emergency." The Biden administration argued that the coronavirus pandemic constituted such a "national emergency."

Roberts wrote that the HEROES Act gives the Education Department the power to "‘waive or modify’ existing statutory or regulatory provisions applicable to financial assistance programs under the Education Act, not to rewrite that statute from the ground up."

"Under the Government’s reading of the HEROES Act, the Secretary would enjoy virtually unlimited power to rewrite the Education Act," Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.

The liberal trio of Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, and Ketanji Brown Jackson dissented in the case, which stemmed from a challenge led by a coalition of six Republican-led states to the Biden administration's proposal to forgive up to $20,000 in student loan debt for eligible borrowers. In her dissent, Kagan argued the Court exceeded its authority "in every respect," both by taking up the case and striking down the loan forgiveness plan.

"The statute provides the Secretary with broad authority to give emergency relief to student-loan borrowers, including by altering usual discharge rules," Kagan wrote. "What the Secretary did fits comfortably within that delegation."

To defend her reasoning, Kagan deployed a hypothetical disaster in which "a terrorist organization sets off a dirty bomb in Chicago" and millions of residents "must find new housing, probably new jobs."

"Still their student-loan bills are coming due every month," Kagan wrote. "To prevent widespread loan delinquencies and defaults, the Secretary wants to discharge $10,000 for the class of affected borrowers. Is that legal? Of course it is; it is exactly what Congress provided for."

In a separate case challenging the loan forgiveness program, Justice Samuel Alito wrote for a unanimous court that a separate group of petitioners did not have standing to challenge the Biden administration’s plan.

The decision brings an end to another landmark term for the Court. Minutes earlier, the Court ruled in favor of a Colorado web designer who refused to design websites for same-sex weddings. On Thursday, the Court overturned decades of affirmative action precedent in a pair of cases challenging race-based admissions policies. It is the latest in a series of decisions from the Court reining in broad executive rulemaking. The Court last month curbed the EPA's use of the Clean Water Act, and last year ruled that executive agencies must have "clear Congressional authority" to regulate on "major questions" of "economic and political significance.

Roberts echoed that standard in his opinion, saying "the ‘economic and political significance’ of the Secretary’s action is staggering by any measure."

The Biden administration’s plan would have forgiven debt for 40 million borrowers, according to Education Department estimates. Borrowers making less than 125,000 as an individual or less than 250,000 as a couple were eligible to have $10,000 in debt forgiven. Pell Grant recipients could have been given as much as $20,000 in loan forgiveness.

The Washington Free Beacon reported earlier this year the HEROES Act authors in an amicus brief rejected the Biden administration’s reading of the 2003 law. Former House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) and former Reps. Howard McKeon (R., Calif.) and John Kline (R., Minn.) said the law was intended to provide relief for service members still paying off college debt, not for all borrowers.

A provision in the debt ceiling package passed last month requires the Biden administration to end its pandemic-era pause of student loan payments. Those payments must resume August 29, 2023, according to the law.

President Biden earlier this month vetoed legislation repealing his student loan forgiveness program. The House of Representatives failed to override the veto last week.

Democrats championed the plan in the 2022 midterms as a boon for the working class, while Republicans argued Americans were footing the bill for the pricey education of their wealthier peers. While the Biden administration claimed almost 90% of relief would go to individuals earning less than $76,000 per year, a JPMorgan study found more than half of the $549 billion in relief would go to earners making more than $76,000 per year.

This is a breaking story and will be updated with further developments.