WASHINGTON (CN) — With a contentious ruling that took away billions in debt relief for Americans, the Supreme Court sent a bat signal to those interested in how some of the biggest political fights across the country play out.
“The court seems to be inviting politically motivated challenges in highly controversial areas,” Lawrence Gostin, faculty director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law and Georgetown Law, said in a phone call.
From abortion to guns to race, the Supreme Court has long been a player in the nation’s politics. Without an actual case or controversy that gives the court jurisdiction, however, the court lacks he ability to decide such cases.
This bedrock judicial principle known as standing prevents the court from deciding issues that are not ripe. But one week out from the decision that blocked President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan, some legal experts are questioning if the court has bucked this fundamental principle.
“From the outside looking in, it looks like the court seems determined to follow an agenda, and traditional avenues of judicial restraint that have been a guiding principle for the Supreme Court for such a long time, seem to be abandoned, particularly the student loan case,” Gostin said.
The case against the debt forgiveness plan was brought by Republican-led states. As they made their way to the Supreme Court, it was clear the conservative majority might use the newly minted major questions doctrine to strike down Biden’s authority to some student loans. What was not clear, however, was whether the program actually wounded the states.
Six justices on the high court ultimately decided that the states did have standing to challenge Biden’s program. Led by Chief Justice John Roberts, the majority adopted an arguments that Missouri would be injured because of its relation to loan servicer the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority (MOHELA). Roberts said the plan would harm MOHELA and therefore harm Missouri.
“Because we conclude that the Secretary’s plan harms MOHELA and thereby directly injures Missouri — conferring standing on that State — we need not consider the other theories of standing raised by the States,” the Bush appointee wrote.
While created by the state, MOHELA is a legally and financially independent public corporation. Internal documents obtained in a public records request by the Student Borrower Protection Center showed the company had no idea prior to the case being filed that the state was going to claim MOHELA’s supposed injury. Some employees even said MOHELA was opposed to the move but was hamstrung by the state attorney general.
But for requests under the state's sunshine law, MOHELA's involvement in the case would be nonexistent.
“It seems to me that this is the kind of court that would typically say, if they're not a party to the case, we should infer there was a reason they're not a party, and, therefore, you can't use them to shoehorn in standing based on them because they're not a party,” Frederick Lawrence, a distinguished lecturer at Georgetown Law, said in a phone interview.
This fact was brought to the justices' attention during oral arguments by U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar. In an exchange with Justice Elena Kagan, Prelogar said the state served these requests to MOHELA because the loan servicer was refusing to give over information voluntarily.
Despite MOHELA’s reluctance to join the state’s effort, the high court majority concluded that harm to the loan servicer would harm the state. Roberts cites MOHELA’s governing structure, which includes state officials and state appointees. He also notes that the loan servicer reports to the state.