Meet the Republican-appointed judges who blocked Biden's student-loan forgiveness
- Two federal courts with GOP-appointed judges have struck down Biden's student-debt relief.
- The judges have a history of conservative rulings on topics ranging from immigration to abortion.
Republican-appointed judges can be credited for the current pause on student-debt relief.
After President Joe Biden announced up to $20,000 in student-loan forgiveness for federal borrowers at the end of August, conservative lawsuits almost immediately surfaced seeking to block the policy. To date, two of them have prevailed — last week, a federal judge in Texas ruled the debt relief illegal, and on Monday, a three-judge panel in the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the temporary stay it placed on the relief weeks prior will remain in place indefinitely.
All of the judges were appointed by Republican presidents, and they've been criticized by some lawmakers and advocates over their rulings and their justifications for striking down student-debt relief. For example, the judge who ruled in the Texas decision compared student-loan forgiveness to a 1933 law that gave Adolf Hitler power, sparking criticism from some legal experts.
As expected, the Biden administration filed an appeal and expressed confidence that it will ultimately prevail in court.
"For the 26 million borrowers who have already given the Department of Education the necessary information to be considered for debt relief – 16 million of whom have already been approved for relief – the Department will hold onto their information so it can quickly process their relief once we prevail in court," White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement last week.
"We will never stop fighting for hardworking Americans most in need – no matter how many roadblocks our opponents and special interests try to put in our way," she added.
Still, the legal process could take months, potentially going beyond the student-loan payment pause expiration on December 31. The case will likely end up at the Supreme Court, which has already dismissed two other conservative lawsuits seeking to block debt relief. Here are the judges who deemed student-loan forgiveness illegal for millions of borrowers.
One judge involved in the Northern Texas ruling
US District Judge Mark Pittman, a federal judge in Northern Texas appointed by former President Donald Trump in 2019, ruled Biden's student-loan forgiveness illegal in response to a lawsuit filed by two student-loan borrowers who didn't qualify for the full $20,000 amount of relief.
Pittman's history of rulings range from an August decision that Texas cannot limit the sale of handguns to people 21 and older, to prohibiting the Biden administration from exempting migrant children traveling without their parents from a Trump-era policy that expelled thousands of migrants during COVID-19.
His history of conservative rulings led lawmakers like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to argue his decision on student-debt relief was playing "politics instead of actually following the law," and some legal experts have said he shouldn't have taken up the lawsuit because the plaintiffs did not have standing to sue.
3 judges responsible for the 8th Circuit ruling
The decision to keep the temporary stay on Biden's student-loan forgiveness in place came from three 8th Circuit judges — Bobby Shepherd, appointed by former President George W. Bush, and Ralph Erickson and L. Steven Grasz, both Trump appointees. It was in response to a lawsuit filed by six Republican-led states who argued the debt relief would harm their states' tax revenues.
Shepherd was nominated to the 8th Circuit in 2006. Since then, he has made a series of rulings surrounding topics ranging from abortion to voting rights. For example, in November 2020 he, along with Judge Grasz, ruled that mail-in ballots in Minnesota that did not arrive by 8pm on election day should not count, even after the secretary of state relaxed the enforcement rules to allow ballots postmarked by 8pm to count, giving voters flexibility during the pandemic.
While Shepherd and Erickson were involved in a decision last year to block Arkansas' extremely restrictive abortion measures that prohibited the procedure after 18 weeks of pregnancy, in line with Supreme Court precedent, both of them noted that the Supreme Court should reconsider "protecting the lives of unborn children."
Shepherd and Grasz are also listed as contributors to the Federalist Society, a group that focused on the conservative interpretation of the law that has ties to Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices.
Additionally, Judge Grasz — confirmed in 2017 — was given a "not qualified" rating by the American Bar Association over concerns he had a "passionately-held social agenda" that "appeared to overwhelm and obscure the ability to exercise dispassionate and unbiased judgment," particularly when it comes to his conservative views on abortion rights.
Grasz also spent eleven years serving as Nebraska's Chief Deputy Attorney General — one of the six states that sued Biden's student-loan forgiveness plan.
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