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When it comes to student loan forgiveness, John Roberts borrows from GOP playbook

Has the Supreme Court justice so tired of headlines about how he’s lost control of the court that he’s decided to drop his air of institutionalism?

Demonstrators outside the Supreme Court, which heard two cases Tuesday about student debt, in Washington D.C., on Feb. 28. Hundreds of students urged the justices to keep the Biden administration program that aims to eliminate $400 billion in student loan debt.ANNA ROSE LAYDEN/NYT

Chief Justice John Roberts knows how to play political ball, after all. And he’s a righty.

Roberts’s reputation of being a stalwart protector of the Supreme Court’s institutional integrity began even before he took the center seat on the bench.

“Judges are not politicians,” Roberts famously said at his 2005 confirmation hearing. He vowed to “remember that it’s my job to call balls and strikes, and not to pitch or bat.”

Fast-forward to Tuesday’s oral arguments in the challenge to the Biden administration’s student loan forgiveness plan, when Roberts served as the Babe Ruth of GOP talking points.


“I think it appropriate to consider some of the fairness arguments,” Roberts said, winding up a hot take hypothetical. In it, he compared a student loan borrower to someone who skipped college to start a lawn care service with a bank loan.

“We know statistically that the person with the college degree is going to do significantly financially better over the course of life than the person without,” Roberts continued. “And then along comes the government, and tells [the student borrower]: ‘You don’t have to pay your loan.’ Nobody’s telling the person who is trying to set up the lawn service business that he doesn’t have to pay his loan.”

Sound familiar? If you’ve heard any of the Republicans who’ve assailed President Biden’s plan, enacted in emergency response to the pandemic-fueled economic crisis, as an unfair bailout for “slackers,” you’d know why. So much for being an umpire.

You’d think at a time when confidence in the court is at an all-time low, Roberts would try to protect its integrity. Instead, he’s letting his right-waving flag fly.

It would be one thing if Roberts’s hypothetical comparison was pertinent to the case. But it wasn’t: The individual challengers are themselves two federal student loan borrowers. No business owner is involved.


Of the borrowers, one wouldn’t qualify for forgiveness because she has a commercially held but federally backed Family Education Loan — the kind, by the way, that was originally included in the types of debt that could be forgiven under the plan. That is, until state GOP officials sued to stop it. The other challenger actually would be eligible for some debt relief under the program — but less than others because he didn’t receive a Pell Grant.

Of course, using the actual challengers wouldn’t have made Roberts’s anecdote so vivid, so Fox News sound bite-ready. He needed a red herring for that.

And that’s just what it was: a non sequitur that served no purpose other than to signal how he was planning to rule and why.

That’s particularly clear when you consider the facts that belie his disingenuous hypothetical. Small-business owners did get pandemic relief in, among other forms, Paycheck Protection Program loans. And more than 11 million of those loans were forgiven, on average more than $72,000 per loan, by the government.

There’s more good news for the struggling lawn service owners Roberts is so concerned about: Personal and business debts are dischargeable in bankruptcy. Student loans are not. They last until the balance is paid or the student borrower dies, whichever happens first.

And college loans are not, as Roberts claimed, a ticket to financial security for everyone. Many Americans, including a larger-than-average share of Black, brown, and poor people, find student loans to be a bad deal, saddling them with the kind of growing, insurmountable debt that becomes a lifelong burden to those without generational wealth to fall back on.


Roberts had already heard Justice Sonia Sotomayor spell out the real-life stakes earlier in the argument.

“Many [borrowers] don’t have assets sufficient to bail them out after the pandemic,” Sotomayor said. “They don’t have friends or families or others who can help them make these payments. The evidence is clear that many of them will have to default.”

And that, she said, will cost them their credit and their ability to get out from under the debt. “They are going to continue to suffer from this pandemic in a way that the general population doesn’t,” Sotomayor said.

But Roberts knows full well how expensive college is and the weight of the debt load it creates. After all, he has socked away upward of $600,000 in a tax-advantaged college savings fund to protect his own kids from such a burden, according to an Associated Press review of his financial filings.

So why the change in posture for the once-circumspect Roberts? Did the fact that he had been unable to reign in the court’s newly constituted conservative bloc enough to even persuade a single member to stop short of overturning Roe v. Wade? Has he so tired of headlines about how he’s lost control of the court that he’s decided to drop his air of institutionalism? Only he knows his reasons. But we already know what the result will be for the student loan borrowers who aren’t as fortunate as his own kids.


Kimberly Atkins Stohr is a columnist for the Globe. She may be reached at kimberly.atkinsstohr@globe.com. Follow her @KimberlyEAtkins.