Student Loan Forgiveness Could Succeed In Spite of Executive Overreach — Here’s How

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Jacquelyn Martin/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (13758513dw)Justice Amy Coney Barrett (L) and Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson (R) listen as President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the US Capitol, in Washington, DC, USA, 07 February 2023.
Jacquelyn Martin/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock / Jacquelyn Martin/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Following oral arguments the Supreme Court heard on Feb. 28 about President Joe Biden’s student loan relief program, the Justices are now deliberating about the fate of the program and its legality. The decision, which is expected in June, will affect millions of borrowers across the country.  

While the primarily conservative court is believed to strike down the program, one argument might still be in the administration’s favor: the lawsuits’ standing, which the plaintiffs must prove before the Court can move forward with the arguments the case hinges on — whether the program is an executive overreach due to its use of the HEROES Act.

Article 3 standing, at the federal level, means that legal actions cannot be brought on the ground that an individual or group is displeased with a government action or law, according to Cornell Law School. The Supreme Court created a three-part test to determine whether a party has standing to sue, in which the plaintiff must have suffered an injury in fact; there must be a causal connection between the injury and the conduct brought before the court; and it must be likely, rather than speculative, that a favorable decision by the court will redress the injury.

“A litigant’s failure to establish standing to sue may result in dismissal of his distinct claims for relief without a decision on the merits of those claims,” according to Congress.

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Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar argued that the lawsuits did not have standing, according to a transcript of the oral arguments.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said that the standing article as applied in such a case “would allow the political branches to hash this out without interference, you know, from a torrent of lawsuits brought by states and entities and individuals who don’t have a real personal stake in the outcome.”

As Business Insider reports, while the justices discussed the other points pertaining to the lawsuits, they spent most of their time on the issue of standing, as this needs to be determined first.

“If there are five votes finding that neither of the parties bringing these lawsuits have standing, then the court doesn’t have any authority to decide the issue of whether the action was legal here,” Abby Shafroth, director of the Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project at the National Consumer Law Center, told Business Insider. “That would be a finding that is not within the court’s power to decide.”

Shafroth added that it could be “entirely possible” the Supreme Court ends up siding with the plaintiffs, arguing that while the administration did not have constitutional rights to enact the program, the justices will “recognize our own limits on authority by dismissing this case for lack of Article Three standing,” Business Insider reported.

Once -and if- the standing issue is established, the justices will move to what is at the crux of the debate: the argument that the program is “unconstitutional” and that the HEROES Act- enacted in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks-does not provides authority to grant relief from student loans.

When the program was announced in August 2022, the Justice Department said in a brief of support of the program that the HEROES Act “authorizes the Secretary to address the financial hardship arising out of the COVID-19 pandemic by reducing or canceling the principal balances of student loans for a broad class of borrowers.”

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Yet, Judge Mark. T. Pittman, of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, argued in his Nov. 10 decision, said that the program was an unconstitutional exercise of Congress’s legislative power and must be vacated, according to the court documents.

“In this country, we are not ruled by an all-powerful executive with a pen and a phone. Instead, we are ruled by a Constitution that provides for three distinct and independent branches of government,” he said according to court filings.

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