DemDaily: The Last Orders of the Supreme Court

June 30, 2023

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) announced the final decisions of its 2022-2023 term, striking down the Biden administration's student loan forgiveness program and, separately, protections for LGBTQ citizens in a Colorado case.

The decisions follow a series of setbacks to civil and constitutional rights under the courts conservative supermajority.

Biden v. Nebraska and Department of Education v. Brown
: In August 2022, President Joe Biden delivered on his campaign promise to reduce student debt, unveiling an unprecedented $400 billion plan to provide up to $20,000 in federal student loan cancellation for more than 40 millions of Americans.

87% of the student loan relief would go to people making less than $75,000 a year, and is capped at anyone making more than $125,000. Student debt is most prevalent among Americans ages 25 to 34, with 67% of student loan borrowers under 40 years old. 30.2% of Black families hold student loan debt, versus 20.0% of white and 14.3% of Hispanic families.

Emersed in the COVID pandemic, the Biden administration invoked the HEROES Act as the basis for his executive authority to forgive loans.

The Act, passed in 2003 in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, gives the Education Secretary broad authority to waive debt amid a war or national emergency -- such as the coronavirus crisis.

The HEROES Act was utilized by the Trump administration two years earlier to suspend student loan repayments at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Legal challenges against Biden's order immediately ensued, including State of Nebraska v. Biden, which was joined by the Republican-led states of Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas and South Carolina -- which argued that the administration exceeded its authority.

The district court dismissed the challenge, finding that the states lacked judicial standing to sue, but the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed the decision, enjoined the forgiveness program pending the appeal.

Separately, in Brown v. US Department of Education, two student loan borrowers who did not qualify for the proposed debt relief filed an October 2022 lawsuit in the Northern Texas US District Court.

A federal judge found the loan forgiveness program an unconstitutional exercise of legislative power vested in Congress and issued a nationwide injunction against its implementation. The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit declined to stay the injunction.

In December 2022, at the request of the Biden administration, the Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in the Department of Education v. Brown, jointly with Biden v. Nebraska.

The Decision: At the outset, the justices unanimously ruled that the two individual borrowers in Department of Education v. Brown lacked standing to challenge the debt-relief plan, vacating and remanding the case.

The Court's 6-3 decision in Biden v. Nebraska. however, was decisive and split clearly along ideological lines. Writing for the conservative majority, Chief Justice John Roberts rejected the Biden administration’s argument that it was within its authority under the HEROES Act to enact the debt forgiveness plan by using emergency “waiver” powers tied to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Roberts contends that the plan cannot fairly be called a waiver when "it not only nullifies existing provisions, but augments and expands them dramatically.” The Act, he said, “allows the Secretary to ‘waive or modify’ existing statutory or regulatory provisions” but not to “rewrite” the federal law on student loans “from the ground up.”

In her stinging dissent, which was joined by fellow liberal Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson, Justice Elena Kagan wrote, “In every respect, the Court today exceeds its proper, limited role in our Nation’s governance...The Court's first overreach in this case is deciding it at all. Under Article III of the Constitution, a plaintiff must have standing to challenge a government action. And that requires a personal stake -- an injury in fact. We do not allow plaintiffs to bring suit just because they oppose a policy."

Kagan also derided the majority for challenging the authority of the Education Secretary under the HEROES Act, which was passed by Congress and therefore beyond the Court's authority. “So in this case, the majority overrides the combined judgment of the Legislative and Executive Branches, with the consequence of eliminating loan forgiveness for 43 million Americans,” said Kagan.

In a press conference today, President Biden assailed the Court's ruling, saying, "Today’s decision has closed one path. Now we’re going to start another." Biden announced a new effort "to provide student debt relief under the Higher Education Act -- which would allow Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to "compromise, weigh or release loans under certain circumstances." He also announced a 12-month "on ramp repayment program" which removes the threat of default or credit harm in the first year of commencing loan repayments -- which begin again in October.

303 Creative LLC v. Elenis
In a blow to LGBTQ rights, the Supreme Court sided with a Colorado Christian website designer who does not want to create wedding websites for same-sex couples because doing so would violate her First Amendment right to free speech.

The Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act (“CADA”) prohibits businesses that are open to the public from from discriminating on the basis of numerous characteristics, including sexual orientation. The law defines discrimination not only as refusing to provide goods or services, but also publishing any communication that says or implies that an individual’s patronage is unwelcome because of a protected characteristic. Roughly half of US states have similar laws.

The designer, represented by the conservative Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), proactively challenged the law in federal court in 2016, alleging numerous constitutional violations. The district court granted summary judgment for the state, and the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed. On appeal, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for the 6-3 majority, said that Colorado cannot “force an individual to speak in ways that align with its views but defy her conscience about a matter of major significance.” The First Amendment, said Gorsuch, "protects an individual’s right to speak his mind"...even when others may regard that speech as "unattractive, misguided, or even hurtful. But tolerance, not coercion, is our Nation’s answer.”

Importantly, Gorsuch indicated that the Court’s decision would provide similar protection to other business owners whose services involve speech, such as artists, speechwriters, and movie directors. The implications are significant for the future of other anti-discrimination laws.

In her fiery dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, "Today is a sad day in American constitutional law and in the lives of LGBT people."

Sotomayor noted that the ruling is "the first time in [the Court's] history" that it granted "a business open to the public a constitutional right to refuse to serve members of a protected class" -- arguing that majority's decision will lead to LGBTQ+ Americans becoming second-class citizens.

"Time and again, businesses and other commercial entities have claimed constitutional rights to discriminate. And time and again, this Court has courageously stood up to those claims -- until today. Today, the Court shrinks." -- Justice Sonia Sotomayor

DemList will keep you informed.

DemDaily: Supreme Court Axes Affirmative Action 6/29/23
DemDaily: Supreme Court Strikes Down GOP Election Doctrine 6/27/23
DemDaily: One Year Later: After the Fall of Roe 6/26/23
DemDaily: Supreme Court Upholds Voting Rights Foundation 6/13/23
DemDaily: Legislating Hate 6/5/23
DemDaily: Distrust in Justice 4/27/23
DemDaily: Supreme Court Stays Abortion Pill 4/24/23
DemDaily: Slashing Student Debt: Explained 8/20/22

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Sources: SCOTUSBlog, US Department of Education, Politico, CNN, Lending Tree, Oyez, PBS

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