Hundreds of debt advocates and progressive political organizers gathered outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday while justices heard oral arguments in two cases challenging President Biden’s plan to cancel up to $20,000 in student loan debt for some borrowers.
Several speakers, including some members of Congress, defended the president’s decision to cancel the debt and framed loan forgiveness as an economic and racial justice issue.
The rally was organized by a coalition of more than two dozen groups, including labor and teachers unions, consumer and legal advocacy groups, and voting rights organizations.
“We are here today because student debt is a crisis, and when there’s a crisis you take action,” said Cody Hounanian, the executive director of the Student Debt Crisis Center, which advocates for protections for people with student debt. “The president has taken action, and the only thing that’s in our way are the folks in that building right now.”
Inside, the 6-3 conservative majority court considered two central issues: whether the plaintiffs in the two cases against the debt cancellation have legal standing to challenge the plan, and whether the Biden administration implemented the plan properly.
“This should be an open and shut case,” Rakim Brooks, the president of Alliance for Justice, an association of groups focused on creating a more progressive federal judiciary, said in an interview. “I still have hope that the court will do what it’s supposed to … [b]ut if they actually get to the substance of the questions I — like everybody else — am afraid that partisanship is going to overwhelm reason.”
For years, activists on the left have called for complete student debt cancellation, pointing to the exponential rise of college costs and loan balances.
An increasing number of Democratic politicians have come on board. During the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called for $50,000 in loan cancellation, while Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called for wiping out all student debt.
Biden took a more modest approach and campaigned on forgiving $10,000 in debt through congressional legislation. When that proved impossible, progressives argued that Biden had the right to act by executive order and Republicans attempted to pass legislation preventing him from doing so.
As pressure grew for Biden to fulfill his promise to cancel debt ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, the administration argued that it had the right to cancel debt under the HEROES Act, the 2003 legislation that allows the secretary of Education to modify loan terms in the event of a national emergency — in this case, the COVID-19 pandemic.
His administration announced its plan to cancel up to $10,000 for borrowers making less than $125,000, and an additional $10,000 for Pell Grant recipients, in August. More than 16 million people, including about 1.5 million Californians, had been approved for cancellation when the policy was blocked by the lower courts in November. The Supreme Court is expected to decide on the case by June.
For some, Tuesday’s rally was about supporting a policy they felt still didn’t go far enough toward alleviating the student debt crisis, particularly for Black borrowers, who on average have higher loan balances and take longer to repay them.
“No matter what happens, stay in this fight,” Warren told the crowd Tuesday. “We cannot let a Supreme Court that is an extremist court take away the opportunity for millions of Americans to have a little racial justice, a little economic justice, a little opportunity to build more secure futures going forward.”
Many of the rally attendees were current or recent college students, some of whom waited in line overnight in the rain to get a spot inside the courtroom for oral arguments.
Lydia Zajichek, a student organizing fellow with Rise, which advocates for making college more affordable, waited until 3:30 a.m. with some of her schoolmates to get the 52nd spot in line. Though she got a scholarship to attend the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she’s a sophomore, her parents have over $100,000 in student loan debt.
“We came out here, we sat in the rain all night and waited until we could get the SCOTUS tickets to listen to the hearing, because it’s just that important to us,” she said.
Kaylah Lightfoot, a sophomore at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., and a member of the NAACP’s Youth and College division, said she already has $12,875 in debt and anticipates taking out more student loans.
Lightfoot said she wanted to show up for the people who couldn’t attend themselves, including her younger siblings in middle school. She said she sees the current plan as a steppingstone toward expanded access to education and, possibly, even more debt cancellation.
“If they can do this once, they can do it again,” she said.