Updated Feb 28, 2023, 1:40pm EST
North America

Why Chief Justice Roberts invoked the French Revolution to talk about Biden’s student debt relief plan

Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts arrives before President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address.
Jacquelyn Martin/Pool via REUTERS

Sign up for Semafor Flagship: The daily global news briefing you can trust. Read it now.

Title icon

The News

As the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case challenging the Biden administration’s student loan debt cancellation plan Tuesday, Chief Justice John Roberts invoked the French Revolution to question whether the White House had the authority to wipe out around $400 billion in loans.

Here’s why Roberts made the reference — which is a quote of a 1994 opinion written by former Justice Antonin Scalia — and what it means for the broader arguments for and against student debt relief.

Title icon

Know More

A 2003 law gives the Secretary of Education the power to “waive or modify” government statutes like student debt programs during an emergency. That’s what the Biden administration says it did following the pandemic.

But the six Republican-led states challenging Biden’s plan in court, argued that the administration exceeded its authority.

Roberts, in turn, quoted Scalia in questioning whether “modify” is an accurate way to refer to what the student debt relief plan did:

‘Modify,’ in our view, connotes moderate change. It might be good English to say that the French Revolution ‘modified’ the status of the French nobility, but only because there is a figure of speech called understatement and a literary device known as sarcasm.

“We’re talking about half a trillion dollars and 43 million Americans,” Roberts added. “How does that fit under the normal understanding of ‘modify?’”

In response, Solicitor General Elizabeth B. Prelogar argued that the president was acting within his authority based on powers given to him by Congress.

Title icon

Step Back

The question of executive authority is a major theme in the student debt case; the court’s conservative judges seemed skeptical of the government’s argument that Biden’s plan was within his powers.

Justice Clarence Thomas said the cancellation plan “runs into Congress’s appropriations authority.”

A debate that could benefit the administration revolves around whether the state of Missouri has the standing to be named in the case at all. Some justices questioned why it is a party to the case rather than the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority, a quasi-state entity that is the primary student loan servicer in the state.

The debt cancellation plan has been on hold for months given the legal challenges.