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  • Ashley Baker

In Blow to Administrative State, SCOTUS Strikes Down Biden’s Debt Cancellation

Committee for Justice president Curt Levey released the following statement on the Supreme Court’s ruling today in the student debt cancellation cases, in which CFJ filed an amicus brief:

The big loser today was not just the Biden Administration and its attempt to unconstitutionally circumvent the legislative branch, born of frustration with Congress’s refusal to enact student debt forgiveness. The Supreme Court’s student debt decision was also an important step towards curtailing the powers of the administrative state or, more precisely, the ability of federal agencies—in this case, the Department of Education— to enact major policies grounded only thinly and creatively in statutory authorization.

We hope the President gets the message. It is worrisome that on the eve of today’s decision, the White House was complaining about “Republicans” daring to challenge his mass debt cancellation in court and about recent bipartisan “legislation that the president had to veto to try and gut this [debt] program."

We call on the Biden Administration to abide by today’s ruling rather than complaining about the legislative and judicial parts of the democratic process and trying to circumvent the ruling, as groups on the Left urged in advance.

The President has already accomplished his goal of using the debt cancellation to win votes in the 2022 midterm election. He should move on to policies Congress supports.

As Chief Justice Roberts explained for the majority, the HEROES Act’s “authority to ‘modify’ statutes and regulations allows the [Education] Secretary to make modest adjustments and additions to existing provisions, not transform them. … The Secretary’s new ‘modifications’ of these provisions were not ‘moderate’ or minor.’”

Instead, Roberts said, the “Secretary’s plan has ‘modified’ the cited provisions only in the same sense that the French Revolution ‘modified’ the status of the French nobility.” The result is “the Executive seizing the power of the Legislature.”

As today’s decision and our amicus brief points out, then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi agreed with this reasoning when she explained in 2021 that the people who think that “the President of the United States has the power for debt forgiveness” are wrong. “That has to be an act of Congress.”

This decision is an important part of the Supreme Court’s recent effort to put teeth into judicial review of the largely unaccountable administrative state’s decades-long power grab. A year ago in West Virginia v. EPA, a case that today’s decision repeatedly cited, the Court said no to the EPA’s assertion of expansive power over carbon emissions.

In April, in Axon v. FTC (see CFJ amicus brief), the Supreme Court ruled against the Federal Trade Commission’s attempt to insulate itself from constitutional challenges. And last month, the Court took another bite out of the administrative state in Sackett v. EPA, (see CFJ amicus brief).

More of the same can be expected in the Court’s next term, when the justices will address the Chevron doctrine in Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo and likely further curtail judicial deference to the policy decisions of administration agencies.

As today’s decision explained, the “staggering” magnitude of the “economic and political significance” of Biden’s debt cancellation—“between $469 billion and $519 billion”—helped to doom it. The Court cited the major questions doctrine, which requires clear Congressional authorization for executive actions of great economic or political significance.

As the Court has said, “Congress does not hide elephants in mouseholes.” And as our brief argued, Congress did not hide a $400-plus billion mastodon affecting tens of millions of Americans in a federal statute (the HEROES Act) that was enacted with virtually unanimous bipartisan support because of its uncontroversial purpose of delaying loan repayment during wartime and similar emergencies.

Finally, it is notable that the final section of the final opinion of the term is an expression of concern from Chief Justice Roberts that the public might be misled by statements in recent dissents that the majority is going beyond the proper role of the judiciary. It is a perception that “would be harmful to [the Court] and our country,” he said. Roberts’ words indicate he is worried that the recent dissents are reinforcing Democrats’ concerted attacks on the legitimacy of the Court.

The Committee for Justice got involved in the student debt cases because fighting the frequent overreach of federal regulatory agencies is central to CFJ’s mission of preserving the Constitution’s limits on federal power, including the separation of powers.


Media Contact: Curt Levey

Phone: (202) 510-0128


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