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Why Biden's student-loan forgiveness plan is legal and should be reinstated by the Supreme Court, according to 44 economists, legal experts, and advocates

Business Insider logo Business Insider 11/29/2022 asheffey@businessinsider.com (Ayelet Sheffey)
President Joe Biden Susan Walsh/AP © Provided by Business Insider President Joe Biden Susan Walsh/AP
  • Biden's administration recently asked the Supreme Court to revive its student-debt relief plan.
  • It followed a decision from the 8th Circuit that ruled the relief will remain paused.
  • Dozens of advocates and experts filed briefs supporting the administration's request.

Millions of student-loan borrowers continue to wait for the nation's highest court to decide if President Joe Biden's debt relief can move forward.

Dozens of of legal experts, economists, and advocates laid out why it can — and should.

At the end of August, Biden announced a plan to forgive up to $20,000 in student debt for federal borrowers making under $125,000 a year, but since then, its rollout has been far from seamless. A number of conservative-backed lawsuits arose seeking to block the policy, and on November 14, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the temporary pause it placed on the relief in October will remain in place indefinitely. The decision was in response to a lawsuit filed by six Republican-led states who argued the relief would hurt their states' tax revenues.

Biden's Justice Department quickly appealed the 8th Circuit's decision and took the issue to the Supreme Court, asking it on November 18 to revive the student-loan forgiveness plan. It's unclear when, or what, the highest court will ultimately decide, but 44 advocates, economists, legal experts, and scholars joined the Biden administration's fight by filing amicus curiae briefs before Thanksgiving supporting the revival of debt relief.

"As this country works its way out of the COVID-19 pandemic, working and middle-class Americans are counting on the President to deliver on his promise of student debt relief," Persis Yu, deputy executive director and managing counsel at advocacy group Student Borrower Protection Center, which filed one of the briefs, said in a statement. "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."

And White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre expressed confidence that administration will prevail during a briefing on Monday. "We are confident in our legal standing, if you will. As you know, it's up to the Supreme Court, and we're going to continue to fight. That will not end," she said.

Here are the main arguments the experts and advocates used as to why the Supreme Court should reinstate Biden's student-debt cancellation plan.

Relief is authorized under the HEROES Act

Biden's administration used the HEROES Act of 2003 to authorize the broad student-debt relief. That law gives the Education Secretary the ability to waive or modify student-loan balances in connection with a national emergency, like COVID-19. But all of the conservative lawsuits seeking to block the relief have argued that the loan forgiveness is an overreach of the authority and should require Congressional approval.

Eleven legal scholars wrote in their brief that the Act appropriately justifies the waiver of student-loan balances — and the COVID-19 national emergency has already been used as a reason to provide student-debt relief in the form of the continued extension of the student-loan payment pause.

The Republicans' "apparent intuition that temporary emergencies only justify temporary relief would be a curious and unheard-of constraint on government action; after all, the federal government does not ask disaster victims to return other forms of financial assistance provided to assist with post-disaster recovery, such as funds for housing and home repair, energy subsidies, or funeral expenses," the brief wrote.

Additionally, Insider previously reported that former Rep. George Miller — an architect of the HEROES Act — also filed a brief to the Supreme Court explaining why the debt relief falls "exactly" under the Education Secretary's authority.

Borrowers continue to feel the impact of the pandemic

While many Republican lawmakers have argued that Biden cannot continue using the pandemic as a reason to provide continued debt relief, 11 economists, sociologists, and public policy and higher education scholars wrote in their brief that the pandemic alone is reason to carry out loan forgiveness.

"The COVID-19 pandemic was a severe national disaster, unprecedented in this century, that has negatively affected recent college graduates, and its effects on those graduates are likely to persist for many years," the brief said.

It added that borrowers would have more difficulty paying off their loans than if the pandemic had never happened. A separate brief filed by American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten also noted that many teachers and healthcare workers have left their fields during the pandemic, and debt "cancellation will help ensure that the millions of student borrowers and their families who are served by AFT are not made worse off with respect to their loan payments due to the devastating COVID-19 pandemic." 

Relief helps those who need it the most

As 21 advocacy organizations wrote in their brief, Biden's debt relief plan is specifically targeted to borrowers who need it most — only Pell Grant recipients are eligible to receive the full $20,000 in relief, and the income cap on any relief stands at $125,000 per year.

"By providing an additional $10,000 in cancellation for borrowers who received a Pell Grant, the Department ensured that borrowers from the lowest income backgrounds – and who are historically at the highest risk of default – obtain the greatest benefit," the brief said.

The brief from legal scholars also emphasized how targeting the debt relief to low-income borrowers was reasonable and within the law's realm, saying that "low-income borrowers are likely to continue suffering the most negative effects" of student debt and are most at-risk of falling behind on payments.

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