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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

Supreme Court blocks student debt relief program

Courts Federal Issues State Issues U.S. Supreme Court Biden Consumer Finance Student Lending Debt Relief Department of Education HEROES Act Administrative Procedure Act Appellate Eighth Circuit


On June 30, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 6-3 decision in Biden v. Nebraska, striking down the Department of Education’s (DOE) student loan debt relief program (announced in August and covered by InfoBytes here) that would have provided between $10,000 and $20,000 in debt cancellation to certain qualifying federal student loan borrowers making under $125,000 a year.

The Biden administration appealed an injunction entered by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit that temporarily prohibited the Secretary of Education from discharging any federal loans under the agency’s program. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) Arguing that the universal injunction was overbroad, the administration contended that the six states lack standing because the debt relief plan “does not require respondents to do anything, forbid them from doing anything, or harm them in any other way.” Moreover, the secretary was acting within the bounds of the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students Act of 2003 (HEROES Act) when he put together the debt relief plan, the administration claimed.

In considering whether the secretary has authority under the HEROES Act “to depart from the existing provisions of the Education Act and establish a student loan forgiveness program that will cancel about $430 billion in debt principal and affect nearly all borrowers,” the Court majority (opinion delivered by Chief Justice Roberts, in which Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett joined) held that at least one state, Missouri, had Article III standing to challenge the program because it would cost the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority (MOHELA), a nonprofit government corporation created by the state to participate in the student loan market, roughly $44 million a year in fees. “The harm to MOHELA in the performance of its public function is necessarily a direct injury to Missouri itself,” the Court wrote.

The Court also ruled in favor of the respondents on the merits, noting that the text of the HEROES Act does not authorize the secretary’s loan forgiveness plan. While the statute allows the Secretary to “waive or modify” existing statutory or regulatory provisions applicable to student financial assistance programs under the Education Act in connection with a war or other military operation or national emergency, it does not permit the Secretary to rewrite that statute, the Court explained, adding that the “modifications” challenged in this case create a “novel and fundamentally different loan forgiveness program.” As such, the Court concluded that “the HEROES Act provides no authorization for the [s]ecretary’s plan when examined using the ordinary tools of statutory interpretation—let alone ‘clear congressional authorization’ for such a program.”

In dissent, three of the justices argued that the majority’s overreach applies to standing as well as to the merits. The states have no personal stake in the loan forgiveness program, the justices argued, calling them “classic ideological plaintiffs.” While the HEROES Act bounds the secretary’s authority, “within that bounded area, Congress gave discretion to the [s]ecretary” by providing that he “could ‘waive or modify any statutory or regulatory provision’ applying to federal student-loan programs, including provisions relating to loan repayment and forgiveness. And in so doing, he could replace the old provisions with new ‘terms and conditions,”’ the justices wrote, adding that the secretary could provide whatever relief needed that he deemed most appropriate.

The Court also handed down a decision in Department of Education v. Brown, ruling that the Court lacks jurisdiction to address the merits of the case as the respondents lacked Article III standing because they failed to establish that any injury they may have suffered from not having their loans forgiven is fairly traceable to the program. Respondents in this case are individuals whose loans are ineligible for debt forgiveness under the plan. The respondents challenged whether the student debt relief program violated the Administrative Procedure Act’s notice-and-comment rulemaking procedures as they were not given the opportunity to provide feedback. (Covered by InfoBytes here.)

President Biden expressed his disappointment following the rulings, but announced new actions are forthcoming to provide debt relief to student borrowers. (See DOE fact sheet here.) The first is a rulemaking initiative “aimed at opening an alternative path to debt relief for as many working and middle-class borrowers as possible, using the Secretary’s authority under the Higher Education Act.” The administration also announced an income-driven repayment plan—the Saving on a Valuable Education (SAVE) plan—which will, among other things, cut borrowers’ monthly payments in half (from 10 to 5 percent of discretionary income) and forgive loan balances after 10 years of payments rather than 20 years for borrowers with original loan balances of $12,000 or less.