The plan, which would provide up to $20,000 in debt relief to 43 million eligible people, is a significant political pledge made by President Joe Biden to energize younger voters. However, the Supreme Court has expressed skepticism about the administration's authority to forgive such a large amount of student debt, and the plan's fate now rests in the hands of the justices.
The court is set to rule on two cases related to the debt relief plan, among 30 other cases in its current term. The conservative justices have doubts about the plan's legality, which was announced by Biden in August and originally scheduled to take effect last fall. The challengers argue that the proposal violates the Constitution and federal law, partly because it circumvents Congress, which they say has the sole power to create laws related to student loan forgiveness.
The administration has proposed forgiving up to $10,000 in debt for borrowers earning less than $125,000 yearly, with Pell Grant recipients eligible for an additional $10,000 in debt relief. The relief would significantly impact minority groups from low-income backgrounds, who would be more likely to finish their educations or consider more ambitious job opportunities if the plan goes into effect.
The Biden administration has cited a 2003 law called the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students Act, or HEROES Act, which allows the government to provide relief to recipients of student loans in the event of a "national emergency." The challengers argue that the language in the HEROES Act is not specific enough to authorize a proposal as broad as Biden's plan, an argument that conservative justices appeared sympathetic to.
The only avenue for the Biden administration to prevail would be if the court concluded that the challengers do not have legal standing to bring their cases in the first place because they cannot show the program would harm them. If the administration were to win the case, it would not remove all potential impediments to the plan's progress, as other cases are pending in lower courts. Still, it would suggest that other people and entities bringing issues are unlikely to do so.
The Supreme Court is also set to rule on many other significant issues, including another education-related dispute that could end the consideration of race in college admissions. The conservative justices have indicated that they are leaning toward ending the review of race in legal challenges arising from the University of North Carolina and Harvard University. A ruling along those lines could significantly drop Black and Hispanic admissions at the country's most selective colleges and accelerate changes in the criteria used to recruit students.
Other cases the justices will rule on in the coming weeks include congressional redistricting disputes from Alabama and North Carolina that could further weaken the Voting Rights Act and limit state court oversight of elections, respectively. The court will also decide a case in which an evangelical conservative Christian web designer wants to avoid punishment under a Colorado anti-discrimination law for refusing to make websites for same-sex weddings.
The flurry of rulings will put the court in the spotlight again a year after the conservative majority overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision and expanded gun rights. In the ensuing months, some have questioned the court's legitimacy, and ethics questions have been raised about some of its members, including incredibly conservative Justice Clarence Thomas.
With the term entering a period when the justices are frantically trying to finish writing rulings while they are sometimes bitterly at odds with one another, Chief Justice John Roberts sought to portray an institution humming along as usual. He said at an event, "I'm happy that I can continue to say there's never been a voice raised in anger in our conference room." However, liberal Justice Elena Kagan, often on the losing side in the court's most significant cases, gave a more nuanced assessment, praising Roberts' qualities as a judge but being candid about the broad areas of disagreement on the ideologically divided bench.