While the court is discussing the student loans, the borrowers see disconnect

WASHINGTON (AP) — Niara Thompson couldn’t shake her frustration as the Supreme Court has discussed President Joe Biden’s Student Debt Cancellation. As I listened from the audience on Tuesday, it all felt academic. There was a long discussion about the nuances of certain words. The judges asked the lawyers to explain hypothetical scenarios.

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

“It felt like people would never understand why we wanted something like this,” he said. “I wanted to be like, ‘You all don’t understand. You all focus on this, but there are people here who are struggling to find food for their families.

Much of the discussion in Tuesday’s hearing centered on whether states had the legal right to demand Biden’s student loan plan. But the judges also examined whether Biden had the authority to waive hundreds of billions of dollars in debt without the express approval of Congress, which decides how taxpayers’ money is spent.

It is not unusual for Supreme Court cases to rely on legal technicalities, even in cases of great public interest. However, after the arguments on Tuesday, he felt isolated to hear such a personal subject reduced to a cold legal language.

Thompson was among a few dozen borrowers who braved the rain overnight to get seats at the courthouse, where they saw conservative judges question the authority of the administration erase the debt held by millions of Americans. Some of the liberal judges of the court have tried several times to return the arguments to the people who will benefit from the program, indicating their need for relief. In response, conservatives questioned whether those who went through college should pay for those who borrowed money to attend.

For Thompson’s family, years of pay hang in the balance. Student loan payments have been on hold since the start of the pandemic, but they are set to restart 60 days after the resolution of court cases – regardless of the outcome.

Thompson and his father are each eligible for $10,000 in relief, he said. It would bring him closer to financial stability, Thompson said, and eliminate the rest of his father’s loans.

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

The mood inside the court – quiet and solemn – was a contrast to the atmosphere outside as dozens of activists gathered in support of the annulment. The crowd 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 about family sacrifices and life milestones deferred 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.” A 2018 graduate of New York University, Azoulay has $40,000 in student debt, while her father has more than $400,000 taken out on behalf of her and her two siblings.

“I really can’t think about my future without thinking about this huge debt,” he 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, instead of leaving to education experts, “the right to decide how much help to give” to people who will fight if the program is brought down.

Other judges also showed an understanding of the borrowers’ situation. Justice Clarence Thomas, the most conservative of the court, wrote about the “crushing weight” of their student loanswhich he paid after reaching the nation’s highest court.

Kayla Smith, 22, joined Thompson in the overnight camp for a seat on the court. A recent graduate of the University of Georgia, he also felt that the discussion was missing the bigger picture.

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

“They were focused on the little tiny details,” Smith, of Atlanta, said of the justices. “I even saw some of them laughing during the hearing, which was strange for me because people’s lives are affected. It’s not a laughing matter for us, at least.” ___

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

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