Why a Trump-appointed Texas judge blocked Biden’s student-debt cancellation plan


Why a Trump-appointed Texas judge blocked Biden’s student-debt cancellation plan

Ayelet Sheffey – November 14, 2022

A view of the US Capitol before a news conference to discuss student-debt cancellation on September 29, 2022.
A view of the US Capitol before a news conference to discuss student-debt cancellation on September 29, 2022.Drew Angerer/Getty Images
  • Trump-appointed Judge Mark Pittman struck down Biden’s debt relief in Texas last week.
  • He argued the two student-loan borrowers who sued have sufficient standing to block the plan.
  • But some legal experts and Democrats said Pittman should never have taken up the case in the first place.

A federal judge doesn’t think President Joe Biden’s plan to cancel student debt for millions of borrowers is legal.

On Thursday evening, Mark Pittman — a Texas judge appointed by former President Donald Trump — struck down Biden’s plan to forgive up to $20,000 in student-loans for federal borrowers making under $125,000 a year. He ruled in favor of two student-loan borrowers who filed the lawsuit because each of them didn’t qualify for the full amount of relief, and at this point, Pittman’s ruing bars the Education Department from discharging student loans until a final verdict is made.

Biden’s Justice Department has filed an appeal, but the administration is not accepting any new student-loan applications at this time.

The Texas case, along with a number of other lawsuits backed by conservative groups, challenges Biden’s authority to use the HEROES Act of 2003, which gives the Education Secretary the ability to waive or modify student-loan balances in connection with a national emergency, like COVID-19. They claimed that enacting broad student-loan forgiveness is an overreach of the authority and should require Congressional approval, while Biden has maintained one-time student-loan forgiveness is well within the administration’s legal authority.

Pittman appeared sympathetic to the conservatives’ arguments in his ruling. “This case involves the question of whether Congress—through the HEROES Act—gave the Secretary authority to implement a Program that provides debt forgiveness to millions of student-loan borrowers, totaling over $400 billion,” Pittman wrote in his ruling. “Whether the Program constitutes good public policy is not the role of this Court to determine. Still, no one can plausibly deny that it is either one of the largest delegations of legislative power to the executive branch, or one of the largest exercises of legislative power without congressional authority in the history of the United States.”

The other lawsuits are also moving through the courts. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, for example, ruled on Monday that its temporary pause on student-debt relief will remain in place until further orders from the court on a separate lawsuit in which six Republican-led states sued the loan forgiveness, arguing it would hurt their states’ tax revenues.

One of the key parts of Pittman’s ruling is that the plaintiffs actually met the legal requirements for a valid lawsuit. He ruled that they have standing to sue the administration, but several prominent Democrats and legal experts have questioned that decision — and other courts have thrown out similar conservative lawsuits due to a lack of standing.

The plaintiffs’ standing to sue

Both of the plaintiffs who brought the Texas lawsuit hold student loans. The first plaintiff, Myra Brown, sued because her loans are commercially-held and therefore ineligible for Biden’s debt relief, which requires the borrower to owe their debt directly to the federal government. And the other plaintiff, Alexander Taylor, sued because he was eligible only for $10,000 in debt forgiveness and not the full $20,000 since he did not receive a Pell Grant in college.

They both argued they were not given the opportunity to challenge the relief before its announcement since it didn’t go through the Administrative Procedure Act’s notice-and-comment period, and they said that failure to go through typical rulemaking processes, along with overstepping authority granted through the HEROES Act, were reasons why the debt relief should be blocked.

Pittman ruled that the plaintiffs have valid reasons for suing the administration. In his opinion, Pittman wrote that standing contains three legal requirements: there must be concrete injury, there must be causation, and there must be redressability, which is the likelihood the requested relief — in this case, blocking debt cancellation — would repair the injury caused. Pittman said that Biden’s Justice Department argument that the plaintiffs’ standing does not exist is “untrue.”

“Plaintiffs do not argue that they are injured because other people are receiving loan forgiveness,” Pittman wrote. “Their injury—no matter how many people are receiving loan forgiveness—is that they personally did not receive forgiveness and were denied a procedural right to comment on the Program’s eligibility requirements.”

And while Pittman concluded that debt relief did not violate procedural requirements, he said it violates authority under the HEROES Act because the “pandemic was declared a national emergency almost three years ago and declared weeks before the Program by the President as ‘over.’ Thus, it is unclear if COVID-19 is still a ‘national emergency’ under the Act.”

Some Democrats and legal experts take issue with the ruling

While Republican lawmakers were quick to laud Pittman’s decision, some legal experts weren’t sold on the merits of the ruling. Steve Vladeck, a CNN legal analyst and professor at the University of Texas School of Law, wrote in an opinion piece that “the biggest problem with Pittman’s ruling isn’t its substance; it’s why he allowed the case to be brought in the first place.”

Vladeck referenced prior conservative lawsuits seeking to challenge the debt relief that had been dismissed for lack of standing, and that if “the complaint is just that the government is acting unlawfully in a way that doesn’t affect plaintiffs personally, that’s a matter to be resolved through the political process – not a judicial one.”

And Leah Litman, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Law, wrote on Twitter that the ruling “is just the latest example of Trump-appointed district judges doing completely outlandish, lawless things to rule against policies by Democratic administrations,” referring to what she said was a lack of standing on the plaintiffs’ side.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren also slammed the ruling, telling NBC News on Sunday that “we have a court down in Texas, and if they’re going to play politics instead of actually following the law, they do put the program at risk.”

Author: John Hanno

Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. Bogan High School. Worked in Alaska after the earthquake. Joined U.S. Army at 17. Sergeant, B Battery, 3rd Battalion, 84th Artillery, 7th Army. Member of 12 different unions, including 4 different locals of the I.B.E.W. Worked for fortune 50, 100 and 200 companies as an industrial electrician, electrical/electronic technician.