Few talkers this court term
Court struck down Biden’s plan to cancel $430 billion of student debt
The U.S. Supreme Court ends its term in June, when it typically issues its most controversial decisions. This year was no exception.
Critics decry the decisions as a continuation of an overly activist right-wing court that overruled Roe v. Wade a year ago, and indicate its decisions have far-reaching effects. It may not be that simple.
In Biden v. Nebraska, the court majority struck down the Biden administration’s unilateral cancellation of what the court estimated to be $430 billion of student debt. President Biden’s promise to cancel student debt just as repayments were about to begin were hailed by many as a great help to many young people burdened by the debt.
The court, however, found that only Congress, which created the loan program, could agree to cancel debt on the scale sought by the administration. The decision seemed to support certain values that are important. Certainly, all students were not tricked into borrowing money, nor are all unable to pay it back. If the national executive branch can unilaterally make a decision to cancel almost half a trillion dollars of debt owed the United States (that’s us), what happened to Congress as holders of the purse strings?
Congress must be able to design a more precise, case-by-case system to consider individual situations and capacity. There also must be some fiscal responsibility imposed on Washington sometime (although trusting Congress to do it may be optimistic).
In Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, the court majority had the chance critics claimed it was seeking: to outlaw affirmative action in college admissions. While there are valid suspicions that the plaintiff in this case was an invented organization set up to litigate the question, and that the court did in fact look for such a case to announce law it was anxious to make, the decision may not be as much of an earthquake as some claimed.
Chief Justice John Roberts, who has evolved into a peacemaker and central player on the court, went out of his way in the majority opinion to make clear that race could be used in ways other than the programs in question to shape a college class.
The decision applies only to a small minority of schools. Most colleges and universities today have far less selective admission policies, even virtually open admissions, due to the shrinking number of high school graduates or those seeking to go to college, so the decision has no effect on most schools.
Finally, the case of 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis created an uproar when the court majority found for a web designer who brought an action seeking an injunction against the state of Colorado enforcing its anti-discrimination laws if she refused to design a website for a same-sex couple to celebrate their marriage.
Critics in this case also accused the court of accepting a case that was not a real dispute, claiming that the supposed customer did not really exist, and the injunction attempt was seeking to prevent something that was not threatened. Nevertheless, the court majority sided with the web designer, not on the basis of freedom of religion, but another First Amendment right, free speech, and said she could not be forced to use her artistic power of speech to advance something in which she did not believe.
Widely decried as creating a crack in civil rights protections, a careful reading of the decision seems to say that public accommodation or other laws protecting various groups from discrimination are not affected when freedom of speech is not implicated, and this decision may not have such general applicability as feared.
Nonetheless, the fact that the court majority accepted the case and decided it as it did, does indicate that perhaps it is going to be used as precedent, or broadened in a way that causes real harm to real parties, so it bears watching.
At the same time these cases were coming out, however, it should be noted that this same court overturned Alabama’s congressional districting plan and sent it back for the creation of two, not one, majority African-American districts, and also decided the vast majority of its cases, which do not involve much ideological content, as it typically has done, without controversy.
This column should not be read as a ringing endorsement of a Trump-packed court. However, it is a reminder that each decision should be read carefully, and immediate reactions predicting the end of civilization as we know it, may be premature.
Brad Cook is a Manchester attorney. The views expressed in this column are his own. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.