U.S. Supreme Court conservatives question Biden's student debt relief

Conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices on Tuesday signaled skepticism over the legality of President Joe Biden's plan to cancel $430 billion in student debt for about 40 million borrowers, with the fate of his policy that fulfilled a campaign promise hanging in the balance.

The nine justices heard arguments in appeals by Biden's administration of two lower court rulings blocking the policy that he unveiled last August. The policy was challenged by six conservative-leaning states and two individual student loan borrowers opposed to the plan's eligibility requirements.

U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, arguing for Biden's administration, sparred with conservative justices including John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh over the policy's legal underpinning and fairness. The court has a 6-3 conservative majority.

Roberts, the chief justice, questioned whether the scale of the relief was a mere modification of an existing student loan program, as allowed under the law the administration cited as authorizing it.

"We're talking about half a trillion dollars and 43 million Americans. How does that fit under the normal understanding of 'modify'?" Roberts asked.

Kavanaugh said Biden's plan was a "massive new program." 

"That seems problematic," he said.

The policy, intended to ease financial burdens on debt-saddled borrowers, faced scrutiny by the court under the so-called major questions doctrine, a muscular judicial approach used by the conservative justices to invalidate major Biden policies deemed lacking clear congressional authorization. Prelogar argued the plan, which Republicans have called an overreach of Biden's authority, does not fit under the major questions paradigm.

Hundreds of demonstrators including borrowers rallied behind Biden's relief plan outside the court. Biden wrote on Twitter, "The relief is critical to over 40 million Americans as they recover from the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. We're confident it's legal."

(With input from Reuters)

(Cover: A view of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., March 2, 2022. /CFP)

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