As court debates student loans, borrowers see disruption

WASHINGTON (AP) – Niara Thompson couldn’t shake her frustration as the Supreme Court discussed President Joe Biden’s request for student debt relief. As she listened from the audience Tuesday, it all felt academic. There was a long discussion about the nuances of certain words. Judges asked lawyers to explore hypothetical scenarios.

For Thompson, none of it is hypothetical. A student at the University of Georgia, she grew up watching her parents struggle with student loans and will graduate with about $50,000 of her own student debt.

“It felt like people could never understand why we would have something like this,” she said. “I wanted to say, ‘You don’t understand. You’re all focusing on this, but there are people out here struggling to feed their families.’

Much of the discussion in Tuesday’s hearing revolved around whether states had the legal right to sue Biden’s student loan plan. But the justices also examined whether Biden had the authority to waive hundreds of billions of dollars in debt without explicit approval from Congress, which decides how taxpayer money is spent.

It is not unusual for Supreme Court cases to hinge on legal technicalities, even in matters of great public interest. But for borrowers after Tuesday’s arguments, hearing such a personal topic reduced to cold legalese felt isolating.

Thompson was among a few dozen borrowers who camped out in the drizzle overnight to get courtside seats, where they watched conservative judges question the administration’s authority to eliminate the debt of millions of Americans. Some of the court’s liberal justices tried several times to turn the arguments back to the people who would benefit from the program, pointing out their need for relief. In response, conservatives asked whether those who passed college should pay for those who borrowed money to attend.

For Thompson’s family, years of payments hang in the balance. Student loan payments have been on hold since the beginning of the pandemic, but they is set to reboot 60 days after the court proceedings have been decided – regardless of the outcome.

Thompson and her father are each eligible for $10,000 in emergency aid, she said. That would move her one step closer to financial stability, Thompson said, and it would eliminate the rest of her father’s loan.

“It just hurt my feelings a little bit,” she said of Tuesday’s arguments. “I just want it to feel better for us, you know?”

The mood inside the court – quiet and ceremonial – was a contrast to the atmosphere outside as dozens of activists gathered in support of the cancellation. Crowds chanted and listened to speeches from members of Congress, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

Advocates took to the podium to share stories of family sacrifices and life milestones postponed due to heavy student debt.

Ella Azoulay, a 26-year-old who lives in Washington, visited the rally to join the push for debt relief, which she calls a “family issue.” Azoulay, who graduated from New York University in 2018, has $40,000 in student debt, while her father has more than $400,000 withdrawn on behalf of her and her two siblings.

“I can’t really think about my future without thinking about this huge debt,” she said. “My dad has no plans to retire. He’s in his 60s, and he’s been saying all my life that he’ll never be able to retire. And that’s really upsetting to hear.”

During the hearing, liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor said it would be a mistake for her fellow justices to take for themselves, rather than leave it to education experts, “the right to decide how much assistance to give” people who want struggle if the program is down.

Other judges have also shown an understanding of the borrowers’ situation. Justice Clarence Thomas, the court’s most staunch conservative, has written about “crushing weight” of his own student loanswhich he paid after reaching the highest court of the land.

Kayla Smith, 22, joined Thompson at the overnight camp for a spot inside the field. A recent graduate of the University of Georgia, she also felt the discussion missed the bigger picture.

Smith’s mother borrowed more than $20,000 in federal Parent Plus loans to help her pay for college. Smith sees it as the result of a broken system that forces people into debt for a shot at social mobility.

“They were focused on small, minimal details,” Smith, of Atlanta, said of the judges. “I even saw some of them laughing during the hearing, which was strange to me because people’s lives are affected. At least it’s not a laughing matter for us.” ___

The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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