The Washington Post
Mr. Biden overreached. Here, the court should let him.
The student loan case before the Supreme Court risks violating judicial principles.
THE SUPREME COURT heard arguments Tuesday on a challenge to President Biden’s massive higher-education student loan forgiveness plan, which could impact the lives of at least 26 million Americans. The policy is expensive and ill-targeted, and made worse by the fact that Mr. Biden failed to get congressional approval for the $400 billion initiative.
But while we have criticized the Biden plan as a regressive and expensive mistake, we also believe it would be an overreach for the justices to strike it down. There are limits that restrict when and how the court can exercise its authority — and this is one of the instances in which it should recognize those limits.
Mr. Biden’s plan would offer $10,000 in loan forgiveness to borrowers making up to $125,000 a year, many of whom can afford to pay back the money they borrowed to obtain degrees that boost their earning power over a lifetime. Those who received Pell Grants, which the federal government offers low-income college students, would see a $20,000 break.
The president committed the federal government to such generosity by the stroke of a pen, invoking the 2003 Heroes Act, in which Congress stipulated that the executive branch could “waive or modify” certain student loan provisions during an emergency to ensure borrowers are not made worse off. President Donald Trump had previously used this provision to pause student debt repayments, citing the covid-19 public health emergency.
But Mr. Biden’s student debt forgiveness scheme is far more expansive — and a questionable reading of the two-decade-old law. When lawmakers passed it in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, it is unlikely they were envisioning a future president issuing audacious, across-the-board student loan relief, as opposed to, say, pausing loan payments while soldiers are deployed in a foreign war or helping hurricane survivors rebuild. The straightforward reading of the law’s purpose is that it permits aid targeted at those who would struggle to repay their loans as a direct result of a serious emergency.
But the administration’s opponents, which include several states and two individuals, “lack standing” — that is, a direct, concrete stake in the outcome — to challenge the law. Some of Tuesday’s arguments revolved around MOHELA, a loan-servicing corporation created by the state of Missouri. Missouri sued on behalf of the loan-servicer, arguing that it was effectively a state entity. In fact, the state created MOHELA to be a financially independent operation, meaning any losses it incurred under the Biden plan would not impact the state. (MOHELA itself might have had a right to sue, but it declined to do so.) The other challengers’ arguments for their standing are even weaker.
Standing is no mere procedural formality. It is a core judicial principle that courts may only consider cases in which a party is harmed and objects to it. “The judiciary doesn’t sit as a roving commission to rule on the legality of either Congress’s enactments or the executive’s implementation of those enactments,” U.S. solicitor general Elizabeth B. Prelogar pointed out. This means that some things — even egregious ones — that presidents or Congresses do are not challenged in court for some time, or ever.
The countervailing danger is that an unconstrained court would invite waves of lawsuits from people seeking favorable rulings on disputes in which they have no stake, save for their ideological preferences, gumming up the courts and government and making the court resemble a body of nine unelected legislators.
Dismissing this case for lack of standing “would allow the political branches to hash this out without interference from a torrent of lawsuits brought by states and entities and individuals who don’t have a real personal stake in the outcome,” noted Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. In this dispute, the proper answer is for Congress to revisit the Heroes Act, clarifying it does not permit presidents to offer such poorly targeted loan forgiveness. While they are at it, federal lawmakers should review the long list of emergency powers they have given the executive branch over the decades, curbing or eliminating those that are unclear or unneeded.