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Texas judge strikes down Biden administration's student loan-forgiveness plan


President Biden's plan to cancel some or all federal debt for students - for 40 million borrowers, actually - this plan ran into a wall late yesterday. Two disgruntled borrowers filed a lawsuit challenging Biden's plan. And a U.S. district court judge in Texas has now declared that the debt relief program is unlawful and vacated it. For more on what happens next, we've got NPR's Cory Turner with us. Hey, Cory.


MARTIN: So this is sort of a big deal. Before we get to the implications, can you walk us through the basics of this case?

TURNER: Yeah. So as you said, it was brought by two borrowers making a pretty unusual argument. One won't qualify for any relief. The other does qualify for $10,000 but is actually frustrated because he believes he should qualify for more. The remedy they're seeking, though, is not cancellation of their debts, but to stop the government from cancelling anyone's debts and to essentially start all over again and rewrite the rules of the program. So I spoke last night with Persis Yu. She's managing counsel of the Student Borrower Protection Center, which has advocated for debt relief. And here's how she describes this case.

PERSIS YU: I like to think about this lawsuit as, like, the toddler problem. If I can't have it, you can't have it either. And that's not how the law works. And it's not how the courts should apply the law.

TURNER: But here's the thing, Rachel. This case is not just about these two borrowers. It is also a big-picture fight over capital-G government and the separation of powers. The conservative legal group behind this suit argues President Biden cannot just wipe away $400 billion in student loan debt. Only Congress can do that. And for him to do it without Congress, they argue, is unlawful, though, of course, the Biden administration says lawmakers did give it the authority to erase student debt when they passed a law called the Heroes Act.

MARTIN: OK, so what did this judge say?

TURNER: So Judge Mark T. Pittman, who was appointed by former President Trump, doesn't buy the administration's reading of the Heroes Act. Instead, he wrote that Biden's debt relief program is a complete usurpation of congressional authority by the executive branch. The judge even quoted James Madison in the Federalist Papers, writing, "The accumulation of all powers - legislative, executive and judiciary - in the same hands may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny." What's most interesting about Pittman's ruling, though, is that he condensed a lot of legal process here, including whether to issue, you know, some sort of temporary block on debt relief, and instead he went big and vacated the entire program.

MARTIN: So what does that mean for all the people, all the borrowers who've already started their online documents to get their debt relieved?

TURNER: Well, at the very least, it means they're still waiting. This is a big setback, Rachel, for those borrowers and for the Biden administration's program. Vacating it doesn't just pause it or block it. It would essentially unwind it. In response, though, we know Biden administration has already appealed the decision. We got confirmation of that last night from the White House. Then again, I should also make clear, like, an appeal is going to go to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has a reputation for being the most conservative appeals - federal appeals court in the country. From there, another appeal would land this case at the Supreme Court. It's hard to know what the timeline is here for clarity - could be weeks. Keep in mind, though, this is important. Lots of borrowers know this, don't need to be reminded. Student loan payments are also set to restart in a matter of weeks, come January.

MARTIN: I still got to pay mine. NPR's Cory Turner, thank you.

TURNER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.