WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court doesn’t have to look far for a personal take on the “crushing weight” of student debt underlying the Biden administration’s debt forgiveness plan.
Judge Clarence Thomas was in his mid-40s and in his third year on the nation’s highest court when he paid off his last debt from his time at Yale Law School.
Thomas, the court’s longest-serving judge and most staunch conservative, was skeptical of other initiatives by the Biden administration. And when the Supreme Court hears arguments Tuesday about President Joe Biden’s debt relief plan that would wipe out up to $20,000 in outstanding student loans, Thomas is unlikely to vote in favor of the administration.
But the judges’ own experiences can be relevant to the way they approach a case, and Thomas is the only one to have written about the role student loans played in his financial struggles.
A fellow law student even suggested that Thomas declare bankruptcy after graduation “to get out of the crushing weight of all my student loans,” the judge wrote in his bestselling 2007 memoir, “My Grandfather’s Son.” He rejected the idea.
It is not clear that any of the other judges borrowed money to attend college or law school or did so for their children’s education. Some judges grew up in relative wealth. Others reported having scholarships to pay their way into some of the country’s most expensive private institutions.
Of the seven court judges who are parents, four have indicated through their investments that they don’t want their own children saddled with heavy student debt, and have piled money into tax-exempt savings accounts that could limit any need. for loans.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Neil Gorsuch have the most on hand, at least $600,000 and at least $300,000 respectively, according to annual disclosure reports filed by the justices in 2022. Each has two children.
Justices Amy Coney Barrett, who has seven children, and Ketanji Brown Jackson, who has two, also invested money in college savings accounts, where any income or growth is tax-free if spent on education.
None of the judges would comment on this story, a court spokeswoman said.
Thomas wrote vividly about his past money troubles in his up-from-poverty story, recounting how a bank once declined one of his loans because amortization and delinquent notices were sent to his grandparents’ home in Savannah, Georgia instead of to Thomas’ house. at the time in Jefferson City, Missouri.
Thomas was only able to get a loan to repay the bank because his mentor, John Danforth, then Attorney General of Missouri and later a U.S. Senator, vouched for him.
Thomas noted that he had signed up for a tuition deferral program at Yale in which a group of students collectively paid their outstanding loans based on their financial ability, with those who earned the most paying the most.
At the time, Thomas’s first wife, Kathy, was pregnant. “I didn’t know what else to do, so I signed on the dotted line and spent the next two decades paying off the money I had borrowed during my last two years at Yale,” Thomas wrote.
When he was first nominated as a federal judge in 1989, Thomas reported $10,000 in outstanding student loans, according to a news report at the time. The Biden administration chose the same number as the amount of debt relief most borrowers would receive under its plan.
Personal experience can dictate the judges’ questions in the courtroom and influence their private conversations about a case, even if that doesn’t appear in the outcome.
“It’s helpful to have people with life experiences that are varied just because it enriches the conversation,” Judge Sonia Sotomayor said. Sotomayor, like Thomas, also grew up poor. She received a full scholarship to Princeton as a student, she said, and, like Thomas, went to Yale to study law.
Keeping people from avoiding the kind of tough choices Thomas faced is an important part of the government’s argument for loan forgiveness. The administration says many borrowers will fall behind on their payments without additional help once a hold is lifted since the start of the coronavirus pandemic three years ago, no later than this summer.
Under a plan announced in August but so far blocked by federal courts, $10,000 in federal loans would be canceled for those making less than $125,000 or for households with incomes less than $250,000. Recipients of Pell Grants, who are generally less financially resourced, would receive an additional $10,000 in forgiven debt.
The White House says 26 million people have already applied and 16 million have been approved for aid. The program is estimated to cost $400 billion over the next three decades.
The legal battle could revolve around several elements, including whether the Republican-led states and individuals suing the plan have legal standing to go to court and whether under federal law Biden has the authority for such an extensive program to canceling loans.
Nebraska and other states challenging the program argue that far from falling behind, 20 million borrowers would get a “windfall” because their entire student loan debt would be erased, Nebraska Attorney General Michael Hilgers wrote in the key statement of the Supreme Court of the States.
Which of those arguments will appeal to the court can become clear on Tuesday.
While serving as dean of Harvard Law School, Judge Elena Kagan expressed her own concern about the high cost of law school, especially for students considering lower-paying jobs.
Kagan has created a program that allows students to complete their senior year tuition-free if they agree to a five-year commitment to work in the public sector. Although that program no longer exists, Harvard offers scholarships to students for public service work.
When the program was created, Kagan said she wanted students to be able to go to work where they could “make the biggest difference, but that’s not the case now.” Instead, she said, “They often go to work where they don’t want to work because of the debt.”
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