US Supreme Court skeptical of student debt forgiveness

A landmark measure by US President Joe Biden to cancel part of the colossal student debt seemed in jeopardy on Tuesday during a hearing before the very conservative Supreme Court of the United States. A majority of its magistrates appeared to believe that the Democratic administration had exceeded its powers by adopting this costly program without explicit authorization from Congress.

Outside the white marble building in Washington, a demonstration with very political overtones tried to influence their position. “We are telling the Supreme Court to listen to the millions of people in need, who want to live like the middle class without being strangled by debt”, launched Senator Bernie Sanders, champion of the American left, surrounded by young people with heavy slates.

Omamus Ogheni, a 20-year-old neuroscience student, has already borrowed $31,000 to fund his studies and is waiting to hear if any of it will be cleared before proceeding. “I am in a very precarious situation,” he told AFP.

A bill of 400 billion dollars

Higher education costs a fortune in the United States, and nearly 43 million Americans have federal student loans to repay, for a total amount of 1.630 billion dollars.

At the start of the pandemic, the administration of Republican President Donald Trump had suspended the repayment of these loans under a 2003 law allowing “relief” for holders of student debt in the event of a “national emergency”. This measure has been continued without interruption until now.

At the end of August, President Biden, who presents himself as a champion of the working classes, wanted to go further: he announced that he would erase 10,000 dollars from the slate of borrowers earning less than 125,000 dollars per year, and 20,000 dollars for the former scholarship holders. The candidates rushed and 26 million applications were filed, according to the White House, which estimates the overall bill for the state at more than 400 billion dollars.

Congress “bypassed”

Justice, however, blocked the implementation of this plan after being seized by a coalition of Republican states, but also by two students not eligible for the 20,000 dollar cancellation. The states accuse the Democratic administration of committing taxpayers’ money without congressional approval. For them, the 2003 law covers the freezing of debt, not its cancellation.

“After the failure of several legislative efforts”, the government “tried to circumvent Congress on one of the most debated political subjects of the moment”, pleaded the representative of Nebraska, Jim Campbell.

His arguments seemed to appeal to conservative magistrates. “Shouldn’t Congress be surprised when nearly $500 billion is wiped off the slate? “, in particular wondered the head of the Court, John Roberts, saying he was very sensitive to respect for the separation of powers. “The Minister of Education acted fully within his field of competence and in accordance with the central objective of the law” of 2023, retorted Elizabeth Prelogar on behalf of the federal government.

“No Harm”

The high court has already inflicted several setbacks on the Democratic administration, invalidating measures taken to block rental evictions during the pandemic or to oblige certain populations to be vaccinated.

To avoid a new snub, the government argues that the plaintiffs were not entitled to take legal action since they “suffered no harm”. Elizabeth Prelogar asked the Court to dismiss their complaint, which would allow the file to be closed without ruling on the merits.

The three progressive judges agreed, with a receptive ear from their conservative colleague Amy Coney Barrett. If the High Court does not follow this path, it could instead take advantage of this file to reaffirm that federal agencies and the government cannot act on the most important matters without a green light from Congress.

“It would pose a problem for the federal government’s ability to operate,” warned progressive judge Kentanji Brown Jackson, as several of her colleagues seemed tempted by this option. The Court will deliver its decision by June 30.

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