Supreme Court axes debt relief, threatens climate regs

By Niina H. Farah, Lesley Clark | 06/30/2023 01:36 PM EDT

Friday’s ruling could make it harder for the Biden administration to clear expensive climate rulemaking past the high court, legal experts said.

The U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court. Francis Chung/E&E News

The Supreme Court issued a ruling Friday blocking student loan relief and in the process inserted more uncertainty into the Biden administration’s ability to tackle climate change.

In a 6-3 decision penned by Chief Justice John Roberts, the high court ruled the Department of Education did not have the authority to forgive between $10,000 to $20,000 of federal student loan debt for eligible borrowers.

Legal experts say the ruling in Biden v. Nebraska — which cites a newly articulated legal theory known as the “major questions” doctrine — could also spell trouble for federal agencies seeking to carry out expensive regulations with economywide effects.


“This ruling doesn’t solve the riddle of what does and what does not constitute a major question, and why,” said Michael Burger, executive director of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

The ruling — along with an earlier environmental decision — could restrain federal agencies from writing broader regulations because it suggests that agencies will be held to a nearly impossible-to-achieve standard, said Karen Sokol, a Loyola University New Orleans law professor. She said the ruling “weaves in major questions logic” to evaluate routine legislative text.

“It’s requiring an extreme level of clarity on the part of Congress,” she said. “And not just clarity, but more specificity as to what the secretary (of a federal agency) can do.”

Sokol noted that the ruling could put at risk environmental, public health and safety regulations that are based on broad congressional authorization to address emerging threats.

“The regulations that are going to matter most, such as climate, are going to be those that impact powerful economic and political actors,” she said. “That automatically renders any regulation suspect, and it’s going to be subject to this exacting interpretation where it’s nearly impossible for Congress to have spoken with the requisite level of clarity.”

Carrie Severino, president of the conservative Judicial Crisis Network and a former law clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas, said the ruling affirms that Congress, not the executive branch, controls federal spending, in particular.

“This decision adds to the Court’s commendable record in recent years asserting the importance of the ‘major questions doctrine’ and requiring clear congressional authorization for executive action,” Severino said in a Twitter thread.

But Ian Fein, senior counsel for litigation strategy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the ruling a “power grab” that would make it harder for the federal government to address national challenges like climate change.

“The public should be alarmed by this new tool the Court has given itself to veto high-profile policy decisions of an administration the majority dislikes,” he said in a statement.

The major questions doctrine states that courts should not defer to agencies’ interpretation of laws passed by Congress on issues of significant political or economic significance.

The Supreme Court cited the doctrine by name for the first time a year ago in the landmark case West Virginia v. EPA, in which the court put tighter guardrails on the kind of regulations EPA could craft to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

Since that decision, attorneys general from red states have raised the doctrine as they’ve sought to block federal rulemaking from the Biden administration. They cited the provision, for example, in a lawsuit filed in February that seeks to quash a Labor Department rule making it easier for retirement plan sponsors to account for climate change risks.

While the court did not rely solely on the major questions doctrine to strike down student debt relief, Roberts noted that the case also failed under that legal theory.

“The ‘economic and political significance’ of the Secretary’s action is staggering by any measure,” said Roberts.

He pointed to estimates from the University of Pennsylvania putting the price tag of the program at between $469 billion and $519 billion for taxpayers.

The court is signaling that particularly expensive actions could be an issue, said Devin Watkins, an attorney for the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

“Regulations that impact a similar amount of money could similarly have the major questions doctrine apply to it,” he said.

The court’s decision shows that the major questions doctrine laid out in West Virginia is here to stay, said Michael Buschbacher, a partner at the firm Boyden Gray & Associates PLLC.

Creative attempts by the government to reimagine statutes to achieve major policy objectives are going to be met with a lot of skepticism, he said in an email. “Much of the Biden administration’s ‘whole of government’ climate agenda is very difficult to square with this approach.”

Burger, of Columbia’s Sabin Center, noted that the ruling struck down what could be “life changing” economic relief to 43 million Americans.

“Clearly there is some eyeballing that goes on in the justices’ assessment of what is major, what is staggering, what is an unheralded use of authority,” he said.

“It continues the trend in major questions decisions that leave individual justices with a great deal of discretion to make what appear to be value judgments in reviewing agency actions,” he added.

A ‘frontal assault’

Roberts’ opinion also took issue with the dissent written by Justice Elena Kagan and joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson. Rather than consider the “sweeping and unprecedented” effect of the loan forgiveness program, he wrote, the dissenting justices had chosen to “mount a frontal assault” on what they called the court’s “made-up major questions doctrine.”

He described the dissent as an “attempt to relitigate” West Virginia v. EPA and called it “misplaced.”

He added, “as we explained in that case, while the major questions ‘label’ may be relatively recent, it refers to ‘an identifiable body of law that has developed over a series of significant cases’ spanning decades.”

In a blistering dissent written by Kagan, the three justices accuse the majority in West Virginia and the student loan case of “thwarting Congress’s efforts to ensure adequate responses to unforeseen events.”

In a concurring opinion, Justice Amy Coney Barrett also sought to clarify the bounds of the major questions doctrine, even as she said that the high court would have reached its conclusion by a straightforward reading of federal law.

“I understand it to emphasize the importance of context when a court interprets a delegation to an administrative agency,” she said. “Seen in this light, the major questions doctrine is a tool for discerning — not departing from —the text’s most natural interpretation.”

However, Barrett noted that major questions did not require an “unequivocal declaration” from Congress authorizing precise action.

None of the court’s rulings based on the doctrine “purports to depart from the best interpretation of the text,” she added.

Watkins of CEI noted that no other justices joined Barrett’s interpretation of the major questions doctrine, which did not define the theory as having a “constitutional dimension.”

The court’s ruling is a blow to the Biden administration and Biden’s campaign promise to address the rising price tag of college and university attendance, and would have cost the Department of Education an estimated $430 billion over three decades.

The White House did not immediately return a request for comment on the ruling.

In her defense of the program, Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar said the Department of Education had authority to authorize debt forgiveness under the 2003 Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students (HEROES) Act.

The law, passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, gives the Education secretary broad power to alleviate economic hardship resulting from national emergencies, she argued.

But Prelogar failed to convince the court’s conservative majority.

The HEROES Act allows the Education secretary to waive or modify existing statutory or regulatory provisions, Roberts wrote. “Not rewrite that statute from the ground up.”