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Six states challenge Biden's student loan forgiveness plan at the Supreme Court

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

At the Supreme Court today, an effort led by a handful of Republican-dominated states seemed on the verge of invalidating President Biden's federal student loan forgiveness plan. As NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports, a majority of the court's conservatives indicated great skepticism about the plan.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: In 2003, after the 9/11 attack, Congress passed a law to ensure that federal student loan borrowers would not be economically hammered in a national emergency. Specifically, the law says that when the president declares such an emergency, the secretary of education has the power to, quote, "waive or modify any statutory or regulatory provision governing federal student loans." During the pandemic, both the Trump and Biden administrations invoked the law to pause student debt payments without penalties. Then last year, President Biden, pressed by some progressives in his own party, went further to provide up to $20,000 in debt relief for borrowers with limited earnings. Although estimates of the plan's cost have ranged from $300 to $430 billion, today in the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Roberts went high. We're talking about a half trillion dollars in debt and 43 million borrowers, he said. How does that mean modify?

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JOHN ROBERTS: If you're talking about this in the abstract, I think most casual observers would say if you're going to give up that much amount of money, if you're going to affect the obligations of that many Americans on a subject that's of great controversy, they would think that's something for Congress to act on.

TOTENBERG: Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar replied that Congress had acted when it passed the 2003 law creating special provisions for student loan forgiveness during a declared national emergency. Justice Kavanaugh.

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BRETT KAVANAUGH: Some of the biggest mistakes in the court's history were deferring to assertions of executive emergency power. Some of the finest moments in the court's history were pushing back against presidential assertions of emergency power. And that's continued.

TOTENBERG: Prelogar replied that the secretary in this case made the necessary finding to justify the loan relief.

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ELIZABETH PRELOGAR: Without this critical relief for debtors, we are going to have a wave of default across the country. With all of the negative consequences that has for borrowers, I think it is precisely the type of context where the executive should be able to implement those emergency powers.

TOTENBERG: Conservative Justices Thomas, Gorsuch and Barrett countered that the power to waive and modify the terms of federal student loans is not the same thing as wiping all or part of a loan off the books. And Gorsuch pointed to the people who have paid off their loans. What about them? - he asked. But the court's three liberals had a very different view. Justice Kagan, for instance, said that Congress had deliberately written an expansive law.

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ELENA KAGAN: We deal with congressional statutes every day that are really confusing. This one is not.

TOTENBERG: The biggest sticking point of the day, though, was whether the six state objectors have legal standing to challenge the student loan forgiveness plan at all. If they can't show that they've suffered a concrete harm, they have no right to sue. Today, they hung their argument on the claim that if lots of loans are discharged, the Biden plan could end up depriving the state of Missouri of revenue from the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority, known as MOHELA. MOHELA is an independent corporation set up by the state that services student debt. But it explicitly did not join this lawsuit - a fact that both liberal and conservative justices pounced on. Justice Kagan.

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KAGAN: Usually, we don't allow one person to step into another's shoes and say, I think that that person suffered a harm, even if the harm is very great.

TOTENBERG: Conservative Justice Barrett was even more pointed.

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AMY CONEY BARRETT: If MOHELA's an arm of the state, why didn't you just strong-arm MOHELA and say, you've got to pursue this suit?

TOTENBERG: Nebraska Solicitor General James Campbell, representing all six GOP states, replied this way.

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JAMES CAMPBELL: Your Honor, that's a question of state politics. But we believe, as a matter of law, that the state has the authority to assert its interest.

TOTENBERG: So what was the bottom line today? Unless the court decides that the states have no standing to sue and throws the case out of court, the Biden student loan forgiveness program will likely be struck down. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINUTEMEN'S "COHESION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.