A number of conservative justices weighed a question more at home at a political roundtable than a court of law during Tuesday’s oral arguments on the Biden administration’s student debt relief plan: Is the President’s initiative really fair?
“You may have views of the fairness of that,” from Chief Justice John Roberts; “what I think they argue is missing is cost to other persons in terms of fairness” from Justice Neil Gorsuch; “why is it fair?” from Justice Samuel Alito.
The word resounded through the oral arguments, with the right-wing justices fixated on the idea that student debt relief would be “unfair” to people who don’t have any student loans. Roberts conjured up a person who forewent college in favor of starting up a lawn service.
It’s an argument that those on the right particularly raise often when contemplating remedies to ballooning, sometimes crushing student debt. It also does useful work for actors trying to drive up opposition to the debt relief program by contrasting supposed college elites with a hypothetical blue-collar everyman.
Alito, picking up on Roberts’ hypothetical, badgered Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar to divulge Education Secretary Miguel Cardona’s thinking on the “unfairness” to the imagined lawn care man and his ilk, ending with a huffy “I guess you don’t want to answer the question.”
“Why was it fair to the people who didn’t get arguably comparable relief?” Alito asked. “Now, it may be that their interests were outweighed by the interests of those who benefitted, or they were somehow less deserving of solicitude.”
As they sometimes do, the liberal justices jumped in seemingly with questions for Prelogar, but mostly just to respond to their colleagues down the bench.
“Congress passed a statute that dealt with loan repayment for colleges and it didn’t pass a statute that dealt with loan repayment for lawn businesses — so Congress made a choice,” Justice Elena Kagan said.
“You’re saying that the secretary implemented his powers under Congress’ choice, which gave him authority over loan repayment — it definitely did not give him authority over loans for lawn care,” she added.
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson was even more pointed, alluding to funds given through programs like the Paycheck Protection Program to companies during the pandemic.
“I’m wondering whether that would be unfair to people who didn’t own a company or somebody who didn’t have a nonprofit and wasn’t getting that money,” she mused. “I just don’t know how far we can go with this notion to the extent that if the government is providing much needed assistance during an emergency, it’s going to be unfair to those who don’t get the same benefit.”