Supreme Court Strikes Down Biden Administration’s Student Loan Debt-Forgiveness Plan

Biden v. Nebraska, No. 22-506

Today, the Supreme Court held in a 6-3 decision that the Secretary of Education lacked the authority to cancel billions of dollars in student loan debt.

Background: The HEROES Act authorizes the Secretary of Education to “waive or modify any statutory or regulatory provision” during a “national emergency.” 20 U.S.C. § 1098bb(a)(1). The Secretary may issue these waivers or modifications as “necessary to ensure” that recipients affected by a national emergency “are not placed in a worse position financially in relation to that financial assistance because of the [emergency].” Id. §§ 1098bb(a)(2)(A), 1098ee(2)(C)-(D).

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Secretary invoked the HEROES Act to eliminate billions of dollars in federal student loan debt. Borrowers with incomes below $125,000 could discharge up to $20,000 in debt if they had received need-based Pell grants or up to $10,000 otherwise.

Six states sued, alleging that the Secretary’s debt-forgiveness plan exceeded his authority under the HEROES Act. The Eighth Circuit agreed with the states and preliminarily enjoined the Secretary’s plan.

Issue: (1) Whether states have standing to challenge the Secretary of Education’s debt-forgiveness plan; (2) whether that plan exceeds the Secretary’s statutory authority.

Court’s Holding: In an opinion authored by Chief Justice Roberts and joined by Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett, the Supreme Court held that the states had standing to sue and that the Secretary of Education’s debt-forgiveness plan exceeded his statutory authority under the HEROES Act.

As to standing, the majority concluded that at least one of the states, Missouri, could challenge the Secretary’s plan. The Court determined that the organization that held and serviced federal student loans—the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority (MOHELA)—was an instrumentality of Missouri. Because the debt-forgiveness plan would “cut MOHELA’s revenues, impairing its efforts to aid Missouri college students,” the Court concluded that this would necessarily result in a direct injury to Missouri itself.

On the merits, the majority held that the Secretary’s debt-forgiveness plan was impermissible under the HEROES Act. That plan, the Court reasoned, was “novel and fundamentally different” than previous waivers and modifications under the Act. It would eliminate over half of all student loan debt and impact over 98% of all borrowers. The Court determined that the plan “cannot fairly be called a waiver” because it “not only nullifies existing provisions, but augments and expands them dramatically.” Nor could it be called a modification, because it effectively introduces a “whole new regime.” In the end, the Court concluded, the Secretary’s plan “seeks to add to existing law.” The Court pointed to the major-questions doctrine as supporting its conclusion. Under that doctrine, an agency cannot regulate an issue of vast economic and political significance without clear congressional authorization.

Justice Barrett filed a concurring opinion addressing the major-questions doctrine. She took the view that the doctrine is a useful tool for discerning a “text’s most natural interpretation” and reinforced the majority’s statutory interpretation.

Justice Kagan dissented, joined by Justices Sotomayor and Jackson. In their view, the states lacked standing to challenge the debt-forgiveness plan, and that plan was a permissible exercise of the agency’s authority under the HEROES Act. According to the dissent, the majority reached the contrary conclusion only by “picking the statute apart[] and addressing each segment of Congress’s authorization as if it had nothing to do with the others.”

Read the opinion here.