Access to Justice

An architect of the law Biden is using to cancel student debt tells the Supreme Court that the relief falls ‘exactly’ under the Education Secretary’s authority and should be revived

One of the lawmakers who constructed the law President Joe Biden is using to cancel student debt just told the nation’s highest court why the debt relief shouldn’t be blocked.

On Tuesday, Smita Ghosh, Appellate Counsel at the Constitutional Accountability Center, on behalf of former Rep. George Miller — a top Democratic lawmaker on the House education committee who helped construct the HEROES Act of 2003 — filed an amicus curiae brief supporting the Biden administration’s request to reinstate its student-loan forgiveness plan. The Act, per its text, gives the Education Secretary the ability to waive or modify student-loan balances in connection with a national emergency, like COVID-19.

After Biden announced up to $20,000 in broad debt relief for federal borrowers at the end of August, a number of conservative lawsuits arose seeking to block the policy. Over the past two weeks, two federal courts have ruled the debt relief should be blocked — most recently, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals decided the temporary pause it placed on Biden’s debt relief in October should remain in place indefinitely, favoring the six Republican-led states who filed the lawsuit and argued the relief would hurt their states’ tax revenues and was overstepping authority under the HEROES Act.

In response to the 8th Circuit’s decision, Biden’s Justice Department on Friday took matters to the Supreme Court and asked it in an appeal to revive the loan forgiveness, and Miller’s recent legal filing supported the administration’s request.

Miller’s filing said that “the Act confers significant authority on the Secretary to ease the burdens on borrowers who have been affected by unexpected national emergencies. And that is exactly what the Secretary has done here.” He also noted how both former President Donald Trump and Biden have used the same authority to extend the student-loan payment pause during the pandemic — something Biden just did for his sixth time on Tuesday, through June 30 at the latest.

“As our brief shows, Congress used broad language in the text of the HEROES Act to make clear that the Education Secretary has extensive authority to respond to national emergencies, and the history of the law confirms that it authorizes comprehensive actions when the circumstances call for them,” the filing said. “While the states challenging the debt-relief plan may not like it as a matter of policy, their contention that the loan forgiveness plan exceeds the Administration’s authority is completely without merit. The Supreme Court should lift the injunction put in place by the Eighth Circuit.”

Along with Miller, advocates, legal experts, and economists filed a series of briefs to the Supreme Court also expressing support for reviving Biden’s debt relief. Persis Yu, Deputy Executive Director and Managing Counsel at the Student Borrower Protection Center — an advocacy group that led 21 legal services and advocates in filing one of the briefs — said in a statement that “the collective Amici are on the front lines helping borrowers survive financial havoc wrought by the double whammy of the broken student loan system and COVID-19 pandemic.”

The Republican-led states who filed the lawsuit blocking debt relief responded to the Biden administration’s request to the Supreme Court to revive the plan on Wednesday, saying in the filing that the HEROES Act “text and context demonstrate that its purpose is to keep certain borrowers from falling into a worse position financially in relation to their student loans.”

“Yet the Secretary uses it here to place tens of millions of borrowers in a better position by cancelling their loans en masse,” the filing continued. “The Act does not allow the Secretary to effectively transform federal student loans into grants. It is telling that the Secretary has never before used the Act in this way.”

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