Student Loan Debt Relief Now Blocked by Two Courts: Will It Ever Happen?

The White House plan to cancel up to $20,000 in student loan debt for eligible borrowers has been hit with another legal setback. Four days after a Texas judge vacated the program, claiming it was unconstitutional, on Nov. 14 a federal appeals court decision in a second lawsuit blocked the debt cancellation program nationwide with a temporary injunction.

The application for student loan relief has stopped accepting submissions. Instead, it displays a simple message: “Courts have issued orders blocking our student debt relief program. As a result, at this time, we are not accepting applications.” In a Nov. 11 press release, the Department of Education noted that, “more than 26 million borrowers have provided the information needed to process their applications for relief and 16 million applications have been approved.”

Learn more about the legal challenges to the onetime student loan debt relief plan and how they could impact forgiveness for eligible student loan borrowers. For more about student loan debt relief, learn how debt cancellation might change your credit score and whether you’ll have to pay state taxes on discharged loans.

What are the legal arguments against the White House student loan debt relief plan?

The legal arguments against student debt loan forgiveness have so far fallen into five main buckets: claims of harm to borrowers; claims of harm to states and state agencies; claims of harm due to the devaluation of Public Service Loan Forgiveness; claims that the program violates the Administrative Procedure Act; and claims that the program is unconstitutional. Many of the lawsuits include multiple claims of damage.

One of the biggest challenges for those opposing student loan debt relief in court has been finding plaintiffs with legal standing who would suffer direct harm from the student loan forgiveness program. That was first demonstrated by the case of Garrison v. US Department of Education: Borrower Frank Garrison claimed he was harmed because his automatic student loan debt cancellation would result in a state tax burden in Indiana. Garrison’s legal standing was seriously damaged when the Department of Education announced that borrowers could opt out of debt forgiveness.

Thursday’s decision to rule the student loan debt relief program unlawful was the first court order to directly address the merits of arguments against the plan. In his 26-page opinion, Judge Mark Pittman wrote that the executive branch had unconstitutionally used Congressional powers: “The HEROES Act — a law to provide loan assistance to military personnel defending our nation — does not provide the executive branch clear congressional authorization to create a $400 billion student loan forgiveness program. The Program is thus an unconstitutional exercise of Congress’s legislative power and must be vacated.”

What are the biggest court challenges to the student loan debt relief plan?

The two most significant lawsuits against the onetime student loan debt relief program have come from states and from two different student loan borrowers claiming harm. 

In the first, Nebraska v. Biden, six Republican-led states (Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and South Carolina) claim that the White House plan will hurt their state tax revenues and state-based loan agencies. The states lost their motion for an injunction in lower courts and appealed to the Eighth Circuit, which ruled in favor of a temporary injunction on Monday.

In the second, Brown v. US Department of Education, two Texas borrowers — a plaintiff with nonfederally held FFEL loans and a plaintiff who didn’t receive a Pell Grant — claim that the debt relief plan should be struck down because it didn’t hold a “notice-and-comment period” as required by the…

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