Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks as student loan forgiveness supporters gather in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on Tuesday. Photo by Tasos Katopodis/UPI | License Photo
WASHINGTON, Feb. 28 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court listened to arguments Tuesday in cases that challenge President Joe Biden's plan to forgive billions in student loans.
Justices were considering the legal standing of plaintiffs to challenge the Department of Education's plan, and they were seeking to determine whether the plan falls within the authority of the secretary of education.
Outside, student borrowers from across the nation rallied in the morning, demanding that justices dismiss lawsuits against Biden's student loan forgiveness program.
The rally was co-sponsored by more than 20 advocacy groups, including the NAACP and the American Federation of Teachers. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., helped spearhead the demonstration.
"It seems like the government is having a hard time figuring out what reparations could look like for us; canceling our student loan debt is one of those pieces," said Maggie Bell, of the New Georgia Project.
Ryan Rudolph, an economic justice fellow at the Student Debt Crisis Center, said he still owes almost $80,000, despite choosing to attend a community college before transferring to a traditional university.
"I saw the number the other day, and my heart sank," Rudolph said. "It was devastating to look at my own debt."
The justices on Tuesday honed in on questions of the legal standing and the secretary of education's authority during arguments in Biden vs. Nebraska. Conservative members of the court seemed skeptical about the legality of Biden's plan.
U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar argued that the Biden administration pulls its authority for the student loan forgiveness program directly from the HEROES Act of 2003, with explicit authorization given by Congress to the Department of Education to "waive or modify any statutory or regulatory provision" related to student loans.
Nebraska Solicitor General James Campbell represented the states that brought legal action. He argued that the administration overstepped the authority by "creating a new program."
Campbell also argued that the connection to the national emergency that is used in the authorization of the program is tenuous, given the time period since the pandemic had begun. He argued that the language in the HEROES Act doesn't allow for such drastic changes, to which Justice Brett Kavanaugh pushed back.
"Why not just read that as written?" Kavanaugh asked.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor pushed Campbell and argued that the secretary of education would be more qualified than the justices to decide how much aid students should receive, with Kavanaugh agreeing that the secretary had expertise in these issues.
Sotomayor also took a stand on the general benefits for millions of students if the plan does go through because it would prevent many from failing to pay their debt.
"The evidence is clear that many of them will have to default," Sotomayor said. "They will continue to suffer in a way the general public doesn't."
Some of the justices pushed Prelogar to explain how the program should not be dealt with by Congress, given the $400 billion pricetag.
The court's conservative majority sometimes employs an approach, a major questions doctrine, to invalidate administration policies that do not have congressional authorization.
Prelogar said that other aid programs, like some put into place by former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos during the Trump administration, cost more and were not considered major questions.
When it came to issues of legal standing, the connection between the state's Higher Education Loan Authority, a public corporation, and Missouri, its home state, was challenged.
Missouri argued that it would be uniquely harmed by the impact of significant debt cancellation of MOHELA, the largest loan servicer in the country.
Prelogar argued that the entities are separate enough that Missouri could not sue on the loan servicer's behalf. Campbell argued the opposite.
The plan, which Biden initially announced on Aug. 24, promised to cancel up to $20,000 for individual borrowers with incomes under $125,000 a year, or households earning under $250,000. Pell Grant recipients could get an additional $10,000.
The Department of Education's announcement was quickly followed by various lawsuits seeking to block the loan forgiveness.
The White House said last month that the plan saw 26 million apply for debt relief with 16 million approved before the federal courts pulled the plug, allowing the Supreme Court to weigh in.
"I'm confident the legal authority to carry that plan is there," Biden said Monday.