Supreme Court ends term with two more defeats for human needs advocates 


June 30, 2023

Just 24 hours after handing down an historic and momentous decision striking the use of affirmative action in college admissions, the U.S. Supreme Court Friday handed human needs advocates two more significant defeats. 

The Court struck down President Biden’s $430 billion signature program to forgive student loan debt, a move that would have aided nearly 40 million Americans. And it ruled unconstitutional a Colorado law that banned some private businesses from discriminating against LGBTQ people. 

In all three decisions handed down Thursday and Friday, the vote was 6-3, with six conservative justices voting for the majority ruling and the remaining three progressive justices – Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ketanji Brown Jackson – registering their dissent. 

The Biden Administration had argued that it had the authority to forgive student loan debt under the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students Act (HEROES) of 2003. The law allows the Secretary of Education to waive or modify loan provisions in response to a national emergency, such as the coronavirus pandemic. 

But Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, pushed back. “The Secretary asserts that the HEROES Act grants him the authority to cancel $430 billion of student loan principal. It does not,” Roberts wrote. “We hold today that the Act allows the Secretary to ‘waive or modify’ existing statutory or regulatory provisions applicable to financial assistance programs under the Education Act, not to rewrite that statute from the ground up.” 

In a dissent, Justice Kagan argued that the Court was making national policy in place of Congress and the Executive Branch. “Congress authorized the forgiveness plan (among many other actions); the Secretary put it in place; and the President would have been accountable for its success or failure,” she wrote. “But this Court today decides that some 40 million Americans will not receive the benefits the plan provides, because (so says the Court) that assistance is too ‘significant.’” 

Human needs advocates, including CHN member groups and allies, quickly criticized the Court’s ruling and expressed concern about the generations of college graduates and others who will be harmed by it. 

Jared C. Bass, Acting Senior Vice President for Education at the Center for American Progress, said the ruling “takes away a lifeline for millions of households crushed by student loan debt.” 

“The Administration’s debt relief plan met the urgency of the moment and restored the promise that higher education should lead to greater opportunity, not lifelong mounts of debt,” he said. “Stopping this plan in its tracks will only prolong the student debt crisis. And it prevents millions of Americans from improving their financial security and creating a foundation for upward economic mobility.” 

AFSCME President Lee Saunders called the ruling “yet another example of this Court’s contempt for working families.” 

“Student debt is crushing the dreams of millions of people across the country, and this decision is a major setback in their efforts to secure the relief they need so badly,” he said. “Now, we must move forward to identify other opportunities to address this ongoing burden.” 

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said the ruling represents a “full-frontal attack on young people’s futures.” 

“If this ruling were the end of the road, it would drastically increase the risk of default for millions of borrowers, mostly women, people of color, lower-income people and retired people, when the pandemic payment pause ends,” she said. “It would thwart the life decisions that boost our economy – like buying a car, buying a house, or having a child – decisions that debt relief makes possible. Fortunately, canceling debt under the HEROES Act isn’t the only legal remedy available. The President has other options, and we hope he swiftly decides on a new path.” 

In the LGBTQ discrimination case, the Court’s six conservative justices ruled in favor of an evangelical freelance artist in Colorado who does not want to create wedding websites for same-sex couples. The majority’s ruling drew a sharp dissent from Sotomayor, joined by Kagan and Jackson. 

“Today the Court, for the very first time in its history, grants a business open to the public a constitutional right to refuse to serve members of a protected class,” she wrote. “Today is a sad day in American constitutional law and in the lives of LGBT people.” 

Imani Rupert-Gordon, Executive Director of the National Center on Lesbian Rights, said that while “the Court’s ruling is narrow and will apply only to a very small number of businesses, the dissenting justices rightly stress that the decision creates an unprecedented exception to nondiscrimination laws.” 

“This decision is out of step with the values held by the great majority of people in this country, who understand that discrimination has no more place in the public marketplace than it has in workplaces, government, or schools,” Rupert-Gordon said. “We are stronger together and we are confident that this disappointing decision will be no more than an unfortunate footnote in our nation’s ongoing commitment to realizing the ideals of freedom and equality for all.” 

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) questioned the validity and origin of the Colorado lawsuit, noting that the freelance artist actually currently does not design or sell wedding websites and, in fact, no same-sex couple has asked to buy one. The plaintiff is represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified as a hate group. 

“Make no mistake, this case was manufactured by the Alliance Defending Freedom to discriminate against LGBTQ people,” said HRC President Kelley Robinson. “Despite our opponents claiming this is a major victory, this ruling does not give unfettered power to discriminate. This decision does not mean that any LGBTQ person can be discriminated against in housing, employment, or banking – those protections remain enshrined with federal law. The LGBTQ community is in a state of emergency where all levels of government are trying to erase us, but we will not let them erase us – we will fight back.” 

LGBTQ rights
Student loan debt