Conservatives Plot Legal Challenge To Joe Biden’s Student Debt Relief

The president's debt forgiveness plan may get tied up in court, according to some legal experts.
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President Joe Biden’s plan to forgive student debt for tens of millions of borrowers could get held up in court.

Conservative opponents of student debt relief are researching ways to challenge the plan and looking for people who could serve as plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the federal government.

Some experts say a legal dispute could jeopardize the debt relief, which would cancel as much as $20,000 per borrower in the coming months. The administration has said 43 million people could benefit.

“I think there’s a fair chance this is gonna get tied up in the courts,” Robert Lawless, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law, told HuffPost last week.

The debt forgiveness program, announced Aug. 24, has not opened yet. The Biden administration has directed borrowers to sign up for an email alert for when it’s ready to take applications. The White House has said nearly 8 million borrowers will have their debts forgiven automatically.

But a successful legal challenge could cause headaches for those whose debt would be forgiven under the plan, Lawless said.

“Say you owe $8,000, so your student loan debt is entirely canceled. Then this gets tied up in the courts. Now what do you do?” he said. “If it gets overturned, it’s gonna be a mess.”

“This does change my financial planning in a very real way,” Mark Simpson-Vos of Durham, N.C. told HuffPost.

Simpson-Vos, 50, works at a nonprofit and has about $9,000 remaining in debt from his undergraduate and graduate school loans as he’s also working to save for his own daughter’s college education. He said that he considers himself fortunate and is concerned about the effect taking this relief away would have on so many other people with higher debt burdens.

“I worked hard, did not expect to have my debt forgiven,” Simpson-Vos said. “Made difficult choices along the way. But when the word came about the forgiveness, I thought to myself, this is extraordinary. What a great opportunity for me to end this cycle and really start both my daughter’s life out without debt, but also to be able to finally get out from underneath it myself. ... It just makes me want to know why the Republican Party is so hell-bent against something that would do so much good for so many people.”

Supporters of the initiative have said they’re not worried about a fight in court.

“I think that the legal authority is really robust,” said Abby Shafroth, director of the National Consumer Law Center’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project. “We know that the Department of Education and legal counsel at the Department of Justice put a lot of thought into it.”

An Aug. 23 legal memo from the Education Department justified debt forgiveness based on a 2003 law, passed in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, that allowed the education secretary to modify student financial assistance programs because of “a war or other military operation or national emergency.”

Former President Donald Trump’s administration cited the same law when it paused student loan payments at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. And a separate memo from the Justice Department, also dated last week, backed up the secretary’s decision to forgive the debt.

Top Democrats, including Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), had themselves questioned whether a president has the legal authority to forgive student borrower debt, though they eventually came around to the idea.

Republicans and conservative advocacy groups railed against the policy as both illegal and unfair to people who paid their debts, and they are now marshaling resources toward a legal battle.

“The conservative public interest law firms in our network are exploring filing lawsuits against this,” John Malcolm, the director of a legal studies center at The Heritage Foundation think tank, told The Washington Post on Thursday. “They are doing background legal research, trying to find out who might be the most suitable clients for them.”

Jalen Bell, 27, took out $21,000 in student loans to get a degree in psychology from Arkansas Tech University. He and his girlfriend and their baby daughter live in Dallas, where Bell works as an area director for the local Boys and Girls Club.

Since the initial payment pause, Trump and Biden have repeatedly extended it, with Biden most recently pushing an Aug. 31 deadline to Dec. 31. Each time a deadline neared for payments to resume, Bell said his heart would beat faster as he fretted about finances.

He recalled worrying, “How am I going to make enough money to be able to still take care of my family, and then pay off student loans?”

Since Bell also received a Pell Grant, the Biden forgiveness plan would all but eliminate his debt, essentially continuing the 2020 payment pause indefinitely.

“With that pause on student loans, not having to pay almost $150 a month, I was able to use that money and put it towards where I felt like it should have been going to anyway, which is my family,” Bell said. “Raising kids is not cheap. Instead of paying the loans off, I was able to pay for diapers, wipes, formula.”

This story has been updated to include interviews with student loan borrowers.

Amanda Terkel contributed reporting.

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