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US makes its case for legality of Biden student debt program

Ahead of oral arguments next month, the Biden administration points to a 2003 law related to national emergencies

The facade of the Supreme Court building.
The facade of the Supreme Court building. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Biden administration urged the Supreme Court to uphold the president’s student loan forgiveness plan Wednesday in the face of several challenges to a program that could forgive up to $20,000 in debt for millions of borrowers.

Wednesday’s filing leaned heavily on a 2003 federal law that allows the secretary of Education to cancel debts for borrowers who face hardship because of national emergencies. The filing asks the justices to reject challenges from frustrated borrowers and conservative-led states in the case, which is set for oral arguments next month.

In Wednesday’s brief, the administration argued that Education Secretary Miguel Cardona’s actions related to an emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic “fall comfortably within the plain text” of that law.

The Justice Department wrote that Congress intended the Education secretary to have broad powers, and several provisions of the law “underscore Congress’ intent to respond quickly and fully to national emergencies.”

The Biden administration first announced the student loan forgiveness plan over the summer after student loan payments had been paused for more than two years due to the pandemic. The program targeted borrowers making less than $125,000 and could allow forgiveness of up to $20,000 each, depending on the loan.

According to a source familiar with the administration’s legal strategy, more than 16 million borrowers have been approved for at least some debt relief, with millions more applying. The source also said that most of the benefits will go to borrowers making less than $75,000 a year.

The administration argued that the case put millions of borrowers in legal limbo, as they wait for months to hear whether their debts will be forgiven.

“The lower courts’ orders have erroneously deprived the Secretary of his statutory authority to provide targeted student-loan debt relief to borrowers affected by national emergencies, leaving millions of economically vulnerable borrowers in limbo,” the brief said.

The program faced a slew of legal challenges, including the two suits that have worked their way up to the Supreme Court through its emergency docket.

In one, a group of six Republican-led states — Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and South Carolina — sued to stop the program. In the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, a three-judge panel ruled that the state attorneys general have the right to bring the challenge in court and gave a temporary stay while the case played out.

In a separate case, two Texas borrowers argued that the administration did not give them the opportunity to weigh in on the program. A Texas federal judge ruled that the plan violated federal law and issued a temporary injunction.

The challengers argued that the Biden administration had taken over Congress’ power over appropriations, and the program effectively discharged more than $400 billion in loans owed to the federal government. Additionally, the challengers argued that the administration had violated the Administrative Procedure Act for notice-and-comment rulemaking.

The Biden administration appealed both cases, asking the Supreme Court to allow the forgiveness to go forward while the program played out. Last month, the Supreme Court agreed to decide the cases and set oral arguments in February. The court is expected to issue opinions by the conclusion of the term at the end of June.

The administration also argued that neither set of challengers should be allowed to press their case because they cannot show they were harmed by the program.

Since the Supreme Court took the case, the administration extended the current student loan payment pause into next year. The administration originally intended to end the payment pause alongside the forgiveness.

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