“Roberts’s attempts to make the Heroes Act mean something other than what it says are at times confusing and difficult to parse. But it basically boils down to this: In order to provide for the particular mix of student loan relief prescribed by the Biden administration’s policy, the secretary had to both “waive” some student loan obligations and “modify” others. That is, the policy only works if the secretary has the power to outright eliminate some obligations, while merely making changes to others.
The chief’s primary attack on the Heroes Act’s statutory language is that he reads the word “modify” too narrowly to permit these changes. As he writes, the word “modify” “carries ‘a connotation of increment or limitation,’ and must be read to mean ‘to change moderately or in minor fashion.’” And then he faults the Biden administration for doing too much, attempting to “transform” student loan obligations instead of merely making “modest adjustments.””
““In the HEROES Act,” Kagan notes, “the dominant piece of context is that ‘modify’ does not stand alone. It is one part of a couplet: ‘waive or modify.’” The word “waive” moreover means “eliminate,” so Congress explicitly gave the secretary the power to simply wipe away student loan obligations altogether.”
“Perhaps recognizing that his attempts to parse the text of the Heroes Act may not be entirely persuasive, Roberts’s opinion also offers an alternative reason to strike down Biden’s student loan forgiveness program — something known as the “major questions doctrine.”
Briefly, the major questions doctrine states that the Court expects “Congress to speak clearly if it wishes to assign to an agency decisions of vast ‘economic and political significance.’” And, as Roberts writes, there’s little question that this student loans policy, which could forgive hundreds of billions of dollars in student loans, involves matters of great significance.
But the most important thing to understand about the major questions doctrine is that it is completely made up. It appears nowhere in the Constitution, and nowhere in any statute, and was invented largely by Republican appointees to the Supreme Court. It is true that the Supreme Court has invoked this made-up doctrine several times in the recent past — mostly in opinions joined entirely by Republican-appointed justices who wished to strike down policies pushed by Democratic presidents — but, in relying on this fabricated legal doctrine one more time, Roberts effectively cites past power grabs by the justices to justify a new power grab.And even if you accept the major questions doctrine as legitimate, it’s not clear why Biden’s student loans program still should not be upheld. The doctrine merely states that Congress must “speak clearly” if it wishes to delegate significant authority to a federal agency. And, for the reasons explained in the previous section, Congress spoke quite clearly when it wrote the Heroes Act.”