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US asks Supreme Court to clear path for student debt program

Six Republican-led states brought one of several ongoing court fights over the program announced by Biden in August

The Supreme Court building as it began a new term in October.
The Supreme Court building as it began a new term in October. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Biden administration asked the Supreme Court Friday to lift a lower court order and allow it to continue a program to forgive up to $20,000 in student loan debt for millions of borrowers.

The administration asked the justices to vacate a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit that paused the forgiveness program while six Republican-led states pursue a legal challenge. The lawsuit is one of several ongoing court fights over the forgiveness program, which President Joe Biden announced in August.

A three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit ruled the state attorneys general may have the legal right to challenge the program in court, and gave a temporary stay to Missouri, Arkansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and South Carolina

The panel decision pointed to the potential impact the program could have on Missouri’s state-created loan servicer to justify allowing the case to continue.

The Biden administration objected to that in an application to the Supreme Court on Friday, arguing the tenuous connection to the servicer “does not suffice to support any injunction—much less a universal injunction prohibiting the government from implementing a critically important policy with direct and tangible effects on millions of Americans.”

The administration told the justices that if they don’t want to vacate the lower court order, they should consider to agree to hear a full appeal of the case quickly and decide it later this term, which ends in June.

A quick decision would “avoid prolonging this uncertainty for the millions of affected borrowers,” the government wrote.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett previously has rejected two emergency requests to stop the program based on a similar argument about the challengers not having the legal right to challenge the program. The court did not deal with the legal merits of the case.

As many as 26 million borrowers have applied for the student loan forgiveness program since the administration opened applications this fall, the administration said. Separately, under a different, coronavirus pandemic-related Department of Education program, student loan payments are currently paused.

The administration plans to end the pause for student loan payments by the end of the year, adding to the urgency for a decision, Friday’s filing said.

The challenge from the conservative states had been dismissed in October, after a federal district judge found the states lacked the legal right to challenge the program. The 8th Circuit case is one of several challenges to the loan forgiveness program, including an injunction issued last week by a federal district judge in Texas.

In the Texas case brought by individual student borrowers represented by the conservative Job Creators Network, U.S. District Judge Mark Pittman found the program was an “unconstitutional exercise of Congress’ legislative power and must be vacated.”

The Justice Department has appealed that case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, and asked for a resolution by Dec. 1.

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