The Supremes – and the Center – Take on Student Debt Relief

March 1, 2023

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases that will decide the fate of President Biden’s plan to cancel student debt for over 40 million Americans. The two lawsuits, Biden v. Nebraska and Department of Education v. Brown, challenge the Secretary of Education’s statutory authority to issue widespread debt relief under the 2003 Higher Education Relief Opportunities (HEROES) Act. The Center filed an amicus brief in support of the debt relief plan, as did legal experts including Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky and Center Faculty Director Professor Jonathan Glater.

Yesterday morning, we were listening closely to how the Justices dealt with the complicated topic of Article III standing – specifically, whether the debt relief plan threatens to injure the state plaintiffs in Biden v. Nebraska so that they can challenge the plan. That question – and especially Missouri’s relationship to MOHELA, a loan-servicing corporation it chartered four decades ago – was the subject of the Center’s amicus brief. Filed on behalf of Missouri consumer advocates, the brief examines and ultimately rejects the states’ principal argument for standing: that the debt relief plan would financially harm MOHELA, which would in turn negatively impact Missouri’s revenue. (Read more about our brief here). At oral argument, Justices Barrett, Kagan, Jackson, and Sotomayor aggressively questioned that relationship and asked why MOHELA, which is not a party to the lawsuit, was not before the Court itself.

We were pleased to see many of the points we made in our brief show up in these four Justices’ questions. However, the questions of the other five Justices suggested both that they were inclined to reach the merits and that they seemed to doubt the government’s express authority under the HEROES Act to waive or modify student debt in the face of a national emergency – the unparalleled COVID-19 pandemic.

Shortly after oral arguments concluded, Berkeley Law students packed the room at an event co-sponsored by the Center and the Consumer Advocacy and Protection Society (CAPS) to dissect the oral arguments and the possible future of student debt cancellation. The panel featured Center staff attorney David Nahmias, Center faculty director Jonathan Glater, and Amanda Prasuhn, the law school’s director of public interest financial support, with moderation by Center executive director Ted Mermin. The panel and audience engaged in a lively discussion of the Administration’s plan, the arguments for and against debt cancellation, the litigation that has followed, and the stakes before the Court. 

David, Ted, and Jonathan have also recently been featured in national media surrounding yesterday’s oral arguments, including ABC (in print and TV), Business Insider (here and here), CBS, MarketWatch, and SCOTUSBlog