the Supreme Court needn’t see if a personal take on the “crushing weight” of student debt under the Biden administration college loan forgiveness plan.
Justice Clarence Thomas was in his mid-40s and in his third year on the nation’s highest court when he paid off the last of his debt from his time at Yale Law School.
Thomas, the court’s longest-serving justice and most conservative, did questioned other initiatives of the Biden administration. And when the Supreme Court hears arguments Tuesday involving President Joe Biden’s debt relief plan that could eliminate up to $20,000 in outstanding student loans, Thomas is unlikely to be a vote in favor of the administration.
But judges’ own experiences can be relevant to how they approach a case, and alone among them, Thomas has written about the role of student loans in his financial struggles.
A fellow law school student even suggested Thomas declare bankruptcy after graduation “to get out of the burden of all my student loans,” the justice wrote in his best-selling 2007 memoir, “My Son Grandfather.” He rejected the idea.
It is unclear whether any of the other justices borrowed money to attend college or law school or did so for their children’s education. Some judges grew up in relative wealth. Some report that they have scholarships to pay their way to some of the most expensive private institutions in the country.
Of the seven parents on the court, four signaled through their investments that they didn’t want their own children to be saddled with heavy college debt, and stashed the money in savings accounts. tax-free college savings that can limit any need. for loans.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Neil Gorsuch have the most, at least $600,000 and at least $300,000, respectively, according to annual disclosure reports that the justices filed in 2022. Each has two son
Judges Amy Coney Barrett, who has seven children, and Ketanji Brown Jackson, who has two, also invest money in college savings accounts, where any earnings or growth are tax-free if spent on education. .
None of the judges would comment for this story, a court spokeswoman said.
Thomas writes candidly about his past financial problems in his story from poverty, recounting how a bank once foreclosed on one of his mortgages because of delinquency notices sent to his grandparents’ home in Savannah, Georgia, instead of Thomas’ home at the time in Jefferson City, Missouri.
Thomas was able to get another loan to pay off the bank only because his mentor, John Danforth, former Missouri attorney general and later a US senator, vouched for him.
Thomas noted that he signed up for a tuition deferment program at Yale in which a group of students pay off their outstanding loans together according to their financial ability, with the most many payers.
At the time, Thomas’ 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 back the money I borrowed during my last two years at Yale,” Thomas wrote.
When he was first nominated to be 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 get under its plan.
Personal experience can shape judges’ questions in the courtroom and affect their private conversations about a case, even if it doesn’t find its way into the outcome.
“It helps to have people with different life experiences just because it improves the conversation,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said. Sotomayor, like Tomas, also grew up poor. He got a full scholarship to Princeton as an undergraduate, he said, and went on to Yale for law school, as Thomas did.
Preventing people from avoiding the kinds of tough choices Thomas faces is a key part of the administration’s argument for debt forgiveness. The administration says that without additional help, many borrowers will be left behind in their payments once a restriction in place since the start of the coronavirus pandemic three years ago is lifted, 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 people making less than $125,000 or for households with less than $250,000. income. Recipients of Pell Grantswho have fewer financial resources, can get an additional $10,000 in loan forgiveness.
The White House says 26 million people have applied and 16 million have been approved for relief. The program is estimated to cost $400 billion over the next three decades.
The legal battle could turn on any number of elements, including whether the Republican-led states and individuals suing the plan have legal standing to go to court and whether Biden has the authority under in federal law for many loan forgiveness programs.
Nebraska and other states challenging the program argue that far from falling, 20 million borrowers will get a “windfall” because their entire student loan debt will be wiped out, Nebraska Attorney General Michael Hilgers wrote in leading state Supreme Court brief.
Which of those arguments will prevail in court may become clear on Tuesday.
When she was dean of Harvard Law School, Justice Elena Kagan expressed her own concern about the high cost of law school, especially for students who were considering low-paying jobs.
Kagan built a program which will allow students to attend their final year tuition-free if they agree to a five-year commitment to work in the public sector. While that program no longer exists, Harvard offers grants to students for public service work.
At the time the program was created, Kagan said he likes the students to go to work where they “can make the biggest difference, but that’s not the case now.” Instead, he said: “They often go to work where they don’t want to work because of the burden of debt.”