Justices question Biden lawyer on president's authority to forgive student loans, sidestep Congress

Justices question whether "half a trillion dollars" can get "wiped off the books" by White House.

Published: February 28, 2023 12:24pm

Updated: February 28, 2023 8:24pm

Justices at the Supreme Court on Tuesday sharply questioned whether the White House has the authority to wipe out hundreds of billions of dollars in student loan debt unilaterally and without any congressional involvement, suggesting the high court could deal a fatal blow to what is arguably President Joe Biden's highest-profile initiative thus far in his presidency.

At issue is the Biden administration's attempt to erase huge quantities of student debt by executive order. The White House has argued that the president maintains that authority under existing education statute. 

On Tuesday several of the justices questioned whether the Biden administration has the legal ability to forgive such a large debt.

“Do you think Congress shouldn’t be surprised when half a trillion dollars gets wiped off the books?” Chief Justice John Roberts asked Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar at one point. Prelogar as the solicitor general is "responsible for conducting and supervising all Supreme Court litigation on behalf of the United States," according to the Justice Department.

Justice Clarence Thomas claimed that the loan forgiveness was "a grant of 400 billion dollars" which "runs headlong into Congress's appropriations authority."

"We’re talking about half-a-trillion dollars and 43 million Americans," Thomas said elsewhere, asking how that figure "fit[s] under the normal understanding of" congressional authority.

Part of the debate centered on the Supreme Court’s "major questions doctrine," which the Congressional Research Service defines as: "if an agency seeks to decide an issue of major national significance, its action must be supported by clear congressional authorization." 

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