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Supreme Court strikes down Biden's student debt forgiveness program

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The U.S. Supreme Court has just shut down President Biden's plan to erase billions of dollars in federal student loan debt. In a 6-to-3 vote on the last day of its current term, the court ruled that Biden's education secretary does not have the power to enact such a plan. Only Congress does. For more, we're joined by NPR's Cory Turner, who's spent the last year covering Biden's plan and the past half hour poring over the court's opinion. Hi, Cory.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Hey, Leila.

FADEL: So you've had a half hour. Walk us through what the court said and why.

TURNER: I'll do my best. So the best way to think about this is the case boils down to what is really a fundamental disagreement over who controls the purse strings of government. According to the Constitution, it's Congress and Congress only. But the Biden administration had argued that a law Congress passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks called the Heroes Act gave the education secretary broad authority to modify or waive student loan rules in times of emergency. Now, there was no COVID back then, but the administration was extrapolating, saying pandemic counts. Six justices on the court disagreed. A nonpartisan estimate pegged the cost of Biden's debt relief plan at more than $400 billion. And in his opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote this. He said, (reading) the secretary asserts that the Heroes Act grants him the authority to cancel $430 billion of student loan principal. It does not. We hold today that the act allows the secretary to waive or modify existing statutory or regulatory provisions, not to rewrite that statute from the ground up.

FADEL: Now, you've said, Cory, previously on this program that the Biden administration's best hope at saving the debt relief program was convincing the justices that none of the plaintiffs here had legal standing, meaning they couldn't show they'd be harmed by debt relief. What happened?

TURNER: Well, so there were two cases before the court about student loans here, Leila. And in one of those cases, the administration succeeded, this one filed by two borrowers. The justices agreed unanimously those borrowers did not have legal standing to sue. They hadn't proven that they would be harmed. It's the other case that got in the way. This one was filed by six conservative states, including Missouri. And they argued - they tried to show harm by saying that a major student loan servicing company, one that millions of borrowers know as MOHELA, based in Missouri, would actually lose business as a result of this plan. And because MOHELA is affiliated with the state of Missouri, the justices felt that these plaintiffs had met the bar for standing, which then allowed them to debate the legal merits of the plan itself, which it was pretty clear from the oral arguments we heard several months ago, a majority of justices were dubious of the merits.

FADEL: So, Cory, what can you tell us about the dissent in this case?

TURNER: Yes. It was written by Justice Elena Kagan, and she took issue both with standing. She disagreed that these states had proven they would be harmed. She wrote, (reading) in giving those states a forum in adjudicating their complaint, the court forgets its proper role. But she also took the court to task for weighing in on an issue here that she says it's clear that the majority of justices disagreed with the debt relief plan politically, and they were looking for a way to skip over the issue of standing and to really shut this plan down because it didn't like the politics of it.

FADEL: So let's get to what this actually means for people. Just remind us what's at stake here, Cory, in the short time we have left.

TURNER: Yeah. I mean, I think regardless of what you think of this plan or this program or its politics, I think it's really important in this moment to recognize that there are tens of millions of Americans who had it in their minds that they might be in better financial shape after this plan. And I think we need to reckon with that. And then there's the logistical - potentially logistical nightmare of resuming repayment in about a month where we're going to have, you know, 40 million people or more returning to repayment and trying to figure out after three years of paused payments, what do they owe, who do they pay and when do they have to do it?

FADEL: NPR education correspondent Cory Turner. Thanks, Cory.

TURNER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.