A federal judge in Texas has struck down President Joe Biden’s student debt relief program, dealing the most serious blow yet to the administration’s efforts to cancel student loans for millions of Americans.
U.S. District Judge Mark Pittman, a Trump appointee, ruled on Thursday that Biden’s debt relief program is “an unconstitutional exercise of Congress’s legislative power and must be vacated.”
The Education Department had already been prohibited from moving ahead with Biden’s student debt relief program under a temporary order from a federal appeals court in a separate case.
But the latest decision, which is likely to be appealed by the Biden administration, goes much further in permanently prohibiting the Education Department from carrying out the entire program.
The Biden administration has approved 16 million applications for student debt relief, according to the department. Many of those decisions have been sent to the agency’s contracted loan servicers, which have been instructed to hold off on reducing borrowers’ loan accounts amid the legal fights.
It was not immediately clear whether the department would be forced to stop accepting new applications for the debt relief program because of the decision.
The White House and Education Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the decision.
Biden on Wednesday credited student debt relief as one of the issues that drove high voter turnout from young voters for Democrats during this week’s midterm elections.
“I especially want to thank the young people of this nation,” Biden said, adding that they “voted in historic numbers.” Those young voters, he said, “voted to continue addressing the climate crisis, gun violence, their personal rights and freedoms and the student debt relief.”
Biden has previously vowed to continue fighting lawsuits challenging student debt relief.
In his 26-page decision, Judge Pittman rejected the Biden administration’s argument that it has the authority to cancel student loans under a 2003 law, known as the HEROES Act, which grants special powers to the Education Department during national emergencies.
“Whether the Program constitutes good public policy is not the role of this Court to determine,” Pittman wrote. “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.”
His ruling sided with a conservative advocacy group, the Job Creators Network, which had sued to stop the policy on behalf of two student loan borrowers who were left out of the program or would not qualify for the full $20,000 of forgiveness.
Those borrowers had standing to sue, Pittman ruled, because they were injured by the Education Department’s failure to provide them with the opportunity to comment on the proposal. “Plaintiffs have a concrete interest in having their debts forgiven to a greater degree,” he wrote.
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