Debt Relief Is a Priority for Students, but Is It for the Supreme Court?

On Feb. 28, in what has become a growing movement across the country, students and teachers amassed on the steps of the Supreme Court to support legislation that would essentially cancel the student loan debt of upward of $400 billion for more than 40 million students. 

In what has become an ongoing battle within the judicial system growing in filings, proceedings, and public infamy. With organizations like The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, and a myriad of state and local governments accompanied by agencies and unions representing millions of student voices. A few conservative judges and states stand in the way of accomplishing this goal for so many. “This court should uphold the lawfulness of Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona’s plan to provide critical relief to student-loan borrowers impacted by an unprecedented pandemic,” written in an amicus curiae brief. 

Publicly there is a lot of determination and effort coming from students as debt relief addresses the hardships and challenges faced during the COVID pandemic period. A difficult time for just about everyone who lived and worked in a metropolitan or communal area; these effects are still being felt today by many as the world has been forced to adapt to what was once a killer virus with an extremely high mortality rate. Work schedules, small gatherings in close quarters, and not seeing a face in public for years still remain to be an issue today in common everyday life. 

The Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students Act, known as the Heroes Act, originates from the 9/11, Enduring Freedom, and Operation Iraqi Freedom era. In 2001 the Secretary of Education was granted waiver authority to respond to national emergencies. In 2003 this authority was broadened by a bill put forth into legislation by Rep. Kline (R-MN) passed by Congress and signed into law by President George Bush to provide student debt relief for troops serving overseas. 

“Several provisions of the HEROES Act indicate that Congress intended the Act to confer broad authority under the circumstances and for the purposes specified by the Act. First, the Act grants authority notwithstanding any other provision of law, unless enacted with specific 

reference to this section. Id. § 1098bb(a)(1). Second, the Act authorizes the Secretary to waive or modify any statutory or regulatory provision applicable to the student financial assistance programs. Id. § 1098bb(a)(1), (a)(2). Third, the Act expressly authorizes the Secretary to issue such waivers and modifications as he deems necessary in connection with a war or other military operation or national emergency. Id. § 1098bb(a)(1). The Supreme Court has recognized that, in empowering a federal official to act as that official deems necessary in circumstances specified by a statute, Congress has granted the official broad discretion to take such action. This authority is not, however, boundless: it is limited, inter alia, to periods of a war, other military operation, or national emergency (id. § 1098bb(a)(1)), to certain categories of eligible individuals or institutions (id. § 1098ee(2)), and to a defined set of purposes (id.§ 1098bb(a)(2)(A)–(E)),” stated in a letter from The Department of Educations General Counsel Lisa Brown to Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. 

In opposition is a clique of Republican-dominated states, Kansas, Arkansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa, and South Carolina, and a cabal of individuals, represented by two Texas residents who would not fully benefit and claim to be injured parties for the purpose of a lawsuit. The Department of Education v. Brown, No. 22-535, is the case for Myra Brown, whose debt is held with the commercial industry. Alexander Taylor, who did not receive a Federal Pell Grant, is only eligible for half the relief. 

This meets the precedent of “standing,” a requirement that must be met to maintain a case against ruling in favor of student debt relief. Called “one of the nation’s most ambitious and expensive executive actions in the nation’s history,” and believed to be a violation of the separation of powers by Justice John G Roberts. That is the separation of the legislative branch, the judiciary branch, and the executive branch. Indicating that the President does not have executive authority to overreach in this judicial case that has become highly controversial.

Although in the previous administration, President Donald Trump had evoked this act during his term in office in March 2020. President Donald Trump had already declared that COVID was a national emergency and took action to pause student loan requirements.   

Furthermore, “the major questions doctrine” has been stated as being applicable in this case, which means that any initiatives with significant political consequences for millions of Americans should be decided with congressional authority. Justices Roberts and Thomas both became very focused on the exact meaning of the text when observing the word “waive,” stating that the text does not specify the waiving or cancellation of loan balances. 

In recent Supreme Court cases, this same doctrine was used to narrow and restrict the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to take any official action on climate change. A similar ruling followed soon after, again using the doctrine. This time it was restricting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from upholding a moratorium on evictions as well as standing against any requirements for employers to have their employees vaccinated.  

The administration disagreed and indicated that the HEROES Act does state this express authority previously given to the secretary of education to accomplish legislative action for this exact purpose, which is to take action on behalf of students in the face of a national emergency.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, fully supporting the president’s plan, compiled a report made up of feedback from students and organizations. Some of the organizations are the Debt Collective, NAACP, the National Young Farmers Coalition, and the United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America. The senator personally stated that “if the Supreme Court fails to apply the law as it is written and uphold Biden’s student debt plan, it’s the most vulnerable Americans who will be harmed most. It’s incumbent on her and others to push the Supreme Court to do its job and allow the president to cancel student debt.”

What is the current state of the case?

With oral arguments having ended, it is time for deliberation, which can take up to three months to reach a decision. With over 40 million students awaiting $ 20,000 worth of loan forgiveness, the Education Department sent a mass email to students reassuring them that the administration would continue to provide support. 

“Our administration is confident in our legal authority to adopt this plan, and today made clear that opponents of the program lack standing even to bring their case to court. While opponents of this program would deny relief to borrowers who need support as they get back on their feet after the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. We will continue providing updates and notify borrowers directly before payments restart. Payments will resume 60 days after the Supreme Court announces its decision. If it has not made a decision or resolved the litigation by June 30, payments will resume 60 days after that,” wrote Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. 

After observation of the loan process during the years of COVID, the warning is dire; if debt relief is not utilized there could be “a historic rise in delinquencies and defaults,” according to the Department of Education. June is the projected date for the court’s decision while millions of students across the country wait it out as their futures and quality of life hang in the balance.

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