WASHINGTON (CN) — President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness program goes before the Supreme Court next week, setting the stage for a major precedent on administrative authority, but a standing issue might ground the suit before it gets off the runway.
“If you take all of the fancy arguments away, the real claim is a taxpayer-standing kind of claim — that people feel this is not a good use of taxpayer dollars — and the court has rejected taxpayer standing in all but a small little sliver of cases now for decades,” Frederick Lawrence, a distinguished lecturer at Georgetown Law, said in a phone interview.
Six Republican-led states are attempting to block Biden’s forgiveness of billions of dollars in student loan debt from American borrowers by way of a 9/11-era law. The states advance a number of theories to claim the program will cause them harm, but whether these theories will meet the standard of Article III standing is unclear.
“The whole idea of not permitting taxpayer standing in court is that if you have a problem with some law or some regulation — if you don't like the law — you should vote for somebody different in the next election,” Lawrence said. “If you don’t like the regulations, you vote for somebody different in the next presidential election. But you can't litigate that in court, so I think it's going to be a tough argument for standing. And it could be that's the off-ramp that the court takes without having to address the merits.”
If the court were to endorse the states’ theory of standing in the case, legal scholars warn it would further encourage suits against every executive action. In a 2007 ruling known as Massachusetts v. EPA, the court gave Massachusetts “special solicitude” in the standing analysis to bring its suit. Experts argue states have taken this ruling to grant extreme theories of standing.
“The states’ more extravagant theories are emblematic of the broader trend where states are taking advantage of vague language in Massachusetts v. EPA to challenge any federal action with which they disagree,” constitutional law professors Samuel Bray and William Baude told the court in an amicus brief. “Unless this Court wishes to sit in constant judgment of every major executive action — which is not its constitutional role — it is time to say ‘stop.’”
Biden announced his plan last summer to forgive up to $20,000 in student loans from low-income borrowers. The program uses authorizations under the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students Act of 2003. Intending to prevent borrowers from facing dire financial hardship in times of war or national emergency, the Heroes Act allows the education secretary to cancel student loan debt from some borrowers. The law was originally enacted with the 9/11 terror attacks in mind, but Biden contends that the Covid-19 national emergency also qualifies because of the business disruptions caused by the pandemic.
Republican-led states argue the Heroes Act was never intended for this purpose. Most groups were unable to establish standing to halt Biden’s actions, but the red states in this case obtained a preliminary injunction from the Eighth Circuit.
The lower court pause led the Biden administration to appeal to the Supreme Court. Declining to lift the lower court pause, the justices agreed to hear oral arguments in the case to decide if the states have standing to bring the suit and if the Biden administration's use of the Heroes Act was above board.
Two student loan borrowers are also challenging Biden’s student debt forgiveness plan. Myra Brown and Alexander Taylor both fail to meet some qualifications for the program and claim they should have had the opportunity to provide the administration with their comments on the plan. The borrowers’ suit was advanced not under the injury Brown and Taylor claimed, but because the judge felt Biden’s use of the Heroes Act exceeded the secretary’s authority.