A federal judge declared on Thursday that President Joe Biden's plan to forgive student loan debt for millions of Americans is unconstitutional and ordered the program to be dissolved.
In a 26-page order, US District Judge Mark Pittman, an appointee of former president Donald Trump, ruled that the Biden administration did not have "clear congressional authorization" to create the program, which is estimated to eliminate about $430 billion in student debt for more than 40 million people. The case in question was filed by two borrowers who did not qualify for the full relief — or any at all — and is one of several lawsuits filed by opponents of the plan.
In a statement Thursday night, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said the Biden administration would appeal the ruling.
"We believe strongly that the Biden-Harris Student Debt Relief Plan is lawful and necessary to give borrowers and working families breaking room as they recover from the pandemic and to ensure they succeed when repayment starts," he said.
In a statement Thursday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called out the "extreme Republican special interests" behind the legal opposition to the forgiveness plan.
She said the president was "determined" for the plan to go ahead.
"We will never stop fighting for hardworking Americans most in need – no matter how many roadblocks our opponents and special interests try to put in our way," she said.
On Friday, the website where people registered for forgiveness announced the plan had been blocked. "As a result, at this time, we are not accepting applications. We are seeking to overturn those orders," the notice read. "If you've already applied, we'll hold your application."
More than 26 million people have already signed up for the program, and 16 million applications have been approved. If an appeal is successful, loan servicers could move forward with discharging their debt.
In August, Biden announced that the government would forgive up to $10,000 in federal student loan debt for Americans making less than $125,000 per year, fulfilling a campaign promise to ease the economic suffering of the millions of people saddled with outstanding debt from loans they took out for school.
According to court documents, the Department of Education was relying on the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students Act of 2003, a law that allows the education secretary to "waive or modify any statutory or regulatory provision applicable to the student financial assistance programs" in the event of war, a military operation, or a national emergency.
In invoking the authority provided under the law, Cardona deemed that the relief program warranted a waiver because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which was declared a national emergency by Trump in 2020.
While Pittman agreed that the pandemic did qualify as a national emergency under the act, he questioned whether the law was intended to authorize loan forgiveness. He also said it was "unclear" whether the relief program was necessary and if the pandemic was still, in fact, an emergency.
"Whether the Program constitutes good public policy is not the role of this Court to determine," Pittman wrote. "Still, no one can plausibly deny that it is either one of the largest delegations of legislative power to the executive branch, or one of the largest exercises of legislative power without congressional authority in the history of the United States."
An appeals court had temporarily blocked the program last month as it considers a separate case filed by six Republican-led states for an injunction.
BuzzFeed News reporter Anna Betts contributed to this story.
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