The Supreme Court Just Told Student Debtors to Go to Hell

The Supreme Court Just Told Student Debtors to Go to Hell

The Supreme Court Just Told Student Debtors to Go to Hell

In a wildly incoherent opinion, John Roberts blocked Biden’s student debt relief plan—and reminded everyone that he thinks only Republican presidents are allowed to rule.


Today, the Supreme Court struck down President Joe Biden’s student debt relief program, wiping out over $400 billion in promised economic relief. As with so many recent rulings, this was a straight party-line vote: The six justices appointed by Republican presidents voted to take away the money, and the three justices appointed by Democratic presidents voted to allow the political branches to make policy.

The case is called Biden v. Nebraska. To give you a sense of just how unhinged the court’s opinion is, Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the conservative majority, analogized the debt relief program to the French Revolution and the people’s violently dispossessing the Ancien Régime from its wealth and status. I’m not remotely making that up. Roberts wrote: “The Secretary’s plan has ‘modified’ the [debt relief] provisions only in the same sense that ‘the French Revolution “modified” the status of the French nobility’—it has abolished them and supplanted them with a new regime entirely.”

When Roberts sounds like he’s working toward a Bourbon Restoration, you know we’re in for a doozy of an opinion.

The core legal issue for the court to consider was whether the Biden debt relief program was authorized in a manner consistent with the 2003 Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students (HEROES) Act. That law gives the secretary of education the right to “waive or modify any statutory or regulatory provision applicable to the student financial assistance programs…as the Secretary deems necessary in connection with a war or other military operation or national emergency.” In response to the Covid-19 pandemic—which, you’ll remember, was the dictionary definition of a “national emergency”—the Biden administration used that authority to discharge $10,000 in student debt for people who make less than $125,000 a year, and up to $20,000 for people who had an outstanding Pell Grant.

To recap: There was a national emergency, and so the government waived some student debt. That seems like a point-and-click application of the HEROES Act’s statutory language allowing the administration to “waive or modify” student debt. But Roberts and the conservatives didn’t see it that way.

In his opinion, Roberts argued that canceling debt is not a waiver but a change to the “fundamental structure” of the student debt regime. He also said that the waiver used by the Biden administration here was not the same as the waivers used in the past, and was thus illegal: Other waivers addressed specific applications of the law, while Biden’s waiver addressed the amount owed. Then he argued that Congress did not specifically authorize this kind of waiver of debt burden—even though, again, “waive” is right there in the damn text of the statute he is referring to.

The decision just proves, for about the millionth time, that the conservatives on the court operate on one principle: “The law is whatever gets us the outcome we want.” They claim that their rulings proceed from the text of the laws they’re given, but when a straight textual analysis doesn’t lead them to the policy they prefer, they make something else up. Conservatives claim to want to follow the will of Congress. Here, the Biden administration used authority granted to it by Congress, and Roberts’s response is essentially, “No. Not like that!” because he didn’t like the policy of the Biden administration.

It would be bad enough if the conservatives were just unprincipled zealots, making things up as they go along. But they’re worse than that: They’re unprincipled partisan hacks who make things up as they go along, based on the party affiliation of the president.

For evidence of that, just look to Roberts’s most famous opinion regarding the emergency powers of a President: Trump v. Hawaii, aka the Muslim Ban case. Many will remember that, back in 2018, President Donald Trump declared a (fake) national emergency over immigration, and proclaimed that the way to address his made-up crisis was to use a religious test to determine entry into the country. If you were an immigrant from a Christian country, you were allowed in; if you were an immigrant from certain Muslim countries, you were banned.

In Trump v. Hawaii, Roberts ruled that Trump did not exceed his executive or statutory authority. Roberts wrote: “Congress’s decision to authorize a benefit for ‘many of America’s closest allies’…did not implicitly foreclose the Executive from imposing tighter restrictions on nationals of certain high-risk countries.”

But in Biden v. Nebraska, Roberts wrote: “All this leads the Court to conclude that ‘[t]he basic and consequential tradeoffs’ inherent in a mass debt cancellation program ‘are ones that Congress would likely have intended for itself.’’’

To put it in plain, practical terms: If the president wants to ban people based on their religion, he doesn’t need Congress to explicitly say that he can. But if the president wants to waive $10,000 of student debt, a law from Congress authorizing the executive branch to (wait for it) “waive or modify” student debt is not an explicit enough grant of authority from Congress.

You can’t make that make sense unless you’re aware of the political parties of the two presidents involved, or the particular policy at stake. Once you factor those things in, Roberts’s ruling falls into place: Republican presidents can rule. Democratic presidents cannot.

There are a number of more technical legal problems with Roberts’s ruling: Most obviously, the states suing the Biden administration shouldn’t have been granted the right to sue (standing) at all, because the states suffer no harm from the student debt relief program. But the practical upshot is that Roberts and the conservatives took away debt relief from 43 million Americans by judicial fiat, over the objection of the democratically elected branches of government.

I can only hope that in the next election, voters remember which Supreme Court justices told student debtors to get fucked, and which party those justices belong to.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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