Supreme Court justices’ financial status has no bearing on legality of student debt relief

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments about the legality of President Joe Biden’s student debt relief plan. Given the normal schedule followed by the Supreme Court, we shouldn’t expect a final decision until at least June. But on Monday, CNN already was hard at work seeking to impugn the legitimacy of the ultimate decision. In an analysis describing the financial status and educational experiences of the nine justices, commentator Devan Cole paints a picture of privilege. These men and women receive a salary between $274,000 and $299,000 a year before other lucrative revenue streams. They all went to either Harvard or Yale University (except for Justice Amy Coney Barrett), and most received significant scholarships during their undergraduate and law school studies.

Cole uses these facts to launch a preemptive assault. These justices’ experiences differ widely from the majority of those who stand to benefit from the student debt relief program. They rose on the wings of advantage. Those the debt relief program is designed to help suffer the chains of misfortune, prejudice or other inhibiting factors. Thus, in Cole’s view, if the justices rule against the program, they do so because they simply don’t understand or sympathize with the plight of the downtrodden.


This attack is exceptionally weak because it is entirely beside the point. The justices aren’t considering whether the relief plan is just, fair or wise. They aren’t assessing the plight of those with federal student loans. Instead, the Supreme Court took the case to consider if the Biden administration’s plan is legal.

The background principle involves the separation of powers that undergird our constitutional republic. Of the many ingenious features of the American political system is the division of the lawmaking, law-enforcing and law-adjudicating functions of the national government into distinct branches. The framers constructed our government this way to make it more effective by dividing up tasks, as well as safer by keeping all power out of the hands of any one institution.

The president, vested with executive power, is entrusted to see that laws are faithfully executed. In this case, Biden claims he is acting faithfully according to Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students Act, also known as the HEROES Act. For good reason, several justices appeared skeptical that the Biden administration rightly read this law to enable the kind of debt cancellation in question. Originally passed to relieve those fighting for our country in Iraq and Afghanistan, the law now also permits the modifying or waiving of student loans in connection with a national emergency.

Assessing the legality of the student relief plan against the text of the HEROES Act has nothing to do with the social and economic status of the judges. It has everything to do with the rule of law. If the Biden administration has misread and misapplied this statute, it has engaged in lawmaking rather than law enforcement, thereby violating the constitutional separation of powers. Given the text of the law, it likely should be voided as beyond the scope of the HEROES Act.

Cole implies that the Supreme Court should uphold the debt relief program essentially on identity or policy grounds. For the justices to do so would decide the case on policy grounds — determinations of the plan’s fairness or necessity. Such considerations matter greatly, and decisions about them must be made by the national government. The court, however, isn’t the place for that decision any more than the executive branch. The Supreme Court doesn’t exist to enact its own will but uses judgment to apply the will of the lawmaker to the case before it.

Ultimately, since the Constitution grants lawmaking power to the legislative branch, it falls to Congress to make these kinds of determinations. That power, by the way, stems from the people themselves, who hold the sovereign authority to make their will into law via Congress and the legislative process the Constitution established for it. In that context, Congress can and should weigh the fairness of debt relief in relation to students, creditors and taxpayers. They then should make laws based on that assessment. The court should respect this function and demand the same of the president.

When the court releases its opinion on the student debt relief cases, Americans would do well not to be distracted by arguments like this one from CNN — it’s an attack that misunderstands the role of the court and the presidency, thereby undermining the rule of law. Our Supreme Court deserves blame or praise based on one thing: whether it properly does its job of interpreting and applying the law.

Regardless of how much money we make, what schools we attended or what debt we incur, it’s the fair and equal application of law that is the true means to our good.

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