The Suit against Student Debt Relief Doesn’t Add Up: Flawed Claims of Legal Standing in Biden v. Nebraska
May 2, 2023
By Thomas Gokey, Eleni Schirmer, Braxton Brewington, Louise Seamster
Introduction: Hasty, Untransparent Legal Process Undermines Factual Review of Standing Claims
In August 2022, President Biden announced his plan to cancel up to $10,000 of student debt for those who make less than $125,000. Student debtors who received Pell Grants are eligible for an additional $10,000 of relief. President Biden invoked the 2003 HEROES Act to issue this plan, with the purpose of making sure that student debtors are not in a worse position financially as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over 43 million borrowers are poised to benefit from the president’s student debt relief plan. However, last fall, six Republican attorneys general sued to stop student debt cancellation, claiming that canceling debt would cause entities in their state to lose money. Now, in Biden v. Nebraska, the Supreme Court is deciding the fate of student debt relief, and the bottom line of a student loan servicer, the Higher Education Loan Authority of the State of Missouri (MOHELA), is being directly counterposed to millions of borrowers’ financial survival.
The lawsuit did not go through the normal procedure. Rather, it was heard as part of the Supreme Court’s granting of “certiorari before judgment” (Bouie 2022)—that is, taking on a case before lower courts have issued final judgments, making it less likely that “the factual and legal issues have been resolved to the maximum extent possible” (Vladeck 2022). The frequent issuance of certiorari in the past few years has troubling implications for the Supreme Court’s exercise of power. It’s considered emblematic of the rise of the “shadow docket,” a collection of orders and decisions the court issues without full briefing or explanation (Baude 2015; Vladeck 2019).
In this case, after a George W. Bush-appointed district court judge dismissed the lawsuit against student debt relief, the Eighth Circuit issued a national injunction, effectively stopping the administration from canceling any student debt until the case is resolved. However, instead of being heard by the Eighth Circuit, which would have forced the plaintiffs to verify the factual basis of their claims, this case skipped directly to the Supreme Court.
This means that the Republican attorneys general trying to stop student debt cancellation for 43 million borrowers have at no point been obliged to verify the basic facts of this case. Instead, rigorous and factual review has been incumbent on the efforts of citizen-researchers like ourselves, who rely on basic Freedom of Information prerogatives to complete an analysis that would otherwise have been taken up by legal research teams. As a result, the Supreme Court risks making a ruling affecting millions of people’s lives without essential, accurate information.
The plaintiffs’ case rests on the idea that MOHELA—and therefore the state of Missouri—would be financially harmed by student debt cancellation. In their eyes, this is enough reasoning to unilaterally prevent 43 million borrowers from obtaining student debt relief. However, data shows that MOHELA’s bottom line would actually improve after millions of cancellations are processed. This information suggests that the plaintiffs’ claim for standing, already widely acknowledged as extravagant, is even weaker than previously considered, if not completely baseless.