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On November 10, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas ruled that the Biden administration’s $400 billion student loan forgiveness program under the HEROES Act of 2003 is “an unconstitutional exercise of Congress’s legislative power.” As previously covered by InfoBytes, the three-part debt relief plan was announced in August to provide, among other things, up to $20,000 in debt cancellation to Pell Grant recipients with loans held by the Department of Education (DOE) and up to $10,000 in debt cancellation to non-Pell Grant recipients for borrowers making less than $125,000 a year or less than $250,000 for married couples. Plaintiffs, whose loans are ineligible for debt forgiveness under the program, sued the DOE and the DOE secretary claiming the agency violated the Administrative Procedure Act’s (APA) notice-and-comment rulemaking procedures and arbitrarily decided the program’s eligibility criteria. Plaintiffs further contended that the DOE secretary does not have the authority under the HEROES Act to implement the program. Defendants countered that the plaintiffs lacked standing.
The court entered summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs (rather than granting preliminary injunctive relief as requested) after determining it was appropriate to proceed to the merits of the case. Concerning defendants’ assertion regarding lack of standing to challenge the DOE’s program because it is conferring a benefit and therefore “nobody is harmed by the existence of that benefit,” (as the court characterized defendants’ argument), the court ruled that the U.S. Supreme Court has actually “recognized that a plaintiff has standing to challenge a government benefit in many cases.” The court next reviewed whether plaintiffs suffered a concrete injury based on the denial of their procedural rights under the APA by not being afforded the opportunity to provide meaningful input to protect their concrete interests. While the HEROES Act expressly exempts the APA’s notice-and-comment obligations, the court stressed that the HEROES Act “does not provide the executive branch clear congressional authorization to create a $400 billion student loan forgiveness program,” and, moreover, does not mention loan forgiveness. “If Congress provided clear congressional authorization for $400 billion in student loan forgiveness via the HEROES Act, it would have mentioned loan forgiveness,” the court wrote. Shortly after the ruling was issued, the DOJ filed a notice of appeal on behalf of the DOE with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona released a statement following the ruling expressing disappointment in the decision.