The U.S. Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision along partisan lines striking down President Biden’s cancelation of college loan debt elicited an equally partisan reaction from press and politicians, as if the court were simply another political body.

It’s an impression the court has unfortunately left itself open to of late.

Republicans applauded Biden v. Nebraska’s perceived check on federal spending, objecting to “bailing out” relatively well-off college attendees who contracted debts voluntarily.

Democrats were outraged at the loss of “relief” for young people, who face obstacles — particularly debt — previous generations were largely free of.

Both sides made good points but miss a much larger one.

And one large red herring kept making the rounds; it should be summarily dismissed.


It’s the notion that some well-off Republicans in Congress who own businesses were hypocrites because they were “forgiven” loans through the pandemic emergency PPP program. It’s an entirely different situation.

The PPP loans were designed to be forgiven as long as the businesses involved maintained employee levels, rather than laying people off — the whole purpose. If they met the terms, they kept the money.

Student loans have a more tangled history, much of it unedifying. When state legislatures started cutting support for public university systems in the 1970s as the baby boom waned, federally guaranteed loans filled the gap.

In the 1950s and ’60s, California had free tuition at public colleges — an enormous boon that now seems a distant memory, though the Golden State’s university system, and economy, still benefit from relatively affordable tuition.

The federal government erred in making loan programs available to all institutions, accredited or not — including for-profit scams; among the most notorious was Trump University.

The Obama Administration cut back the worst excesses and unwarranted charges; for-profits mostly exited. Yet subsidizing students at Harvard and, yes, Colby, Bates and Bowdoin through federally guaranteed loans makes little sense, especially when public university graduates end up with huge debt burdens.


Biden acted quickly to extend the payment moratorium on loans, in concert with measures such as PPP, and renewed the exemption several times, effectively saving recent graduates hundreds and even thousands of dollars in interest costs.

Debt cancelation, however, was always constitutionally dubious, for reasons it’s important for Americans to understand well beyond the student loan case.

We’re all familiar with Bill of Rights guarantees of individual freedoms for speech, religion, the press and, at least since 2008, an individual’s right to own firearms.

We’re less familiar with the vital guarantees, as the Fifth Amendment puts it, against being “deprived of life, liberty, or property” a phrase repeated in the Fourteenth Amendment, more celebrated today in connection with racial justice for liberals, or free enterprise for conservatives.

But it has a meaning in contract law that establishes the bedrock for an achievement of the Constitution almost as remarkable as our unbroken series of free and fair elections, continuing more than 230 years.

It’s the nation’s record of honoring its debts, without exception, even when it would have been far more convenient, and far less expensive, not to.


The first such crisis occurred after the Revolution, when much of the war debt incurred by the victorious colonies was held by foreigners. Many were in favor of repudiating these contracts, but Congress adopted Alexander Hamilton’s plan for full funding — even though much of the paper had been sold to speculators at steep discounts.

The Civil War saw creative financing on a massive scale, including the first income tax and first use of paper money. The Fourteenth Amendment provided full funding for all Union debt — and also prohibited any payment to Confederate bondholders.

Those who believe the South paid a scant price for its rebellion should recall that those who financed its armies were wiped out, while many Northerners earned fortunes, including several Maine entrepreneurs.

And so, it has continued. The Federal Reserve System is the envy of the world and has just guided us through another unprecedented financial crisis. The dollar’s role as the world reserve currency is unquestioned and produces continuing benefits for us.

Yet it’s all based on public faith in credit. Canceling legally contracted debts, however popular the measure might be, crosses a line.

There are many other ways to address the student loan problem, if Congress would get off its backside and legislate. Interest rates can be lowered, terms refinanced or renegotiated; these are financial standards.

But the more important task is making college affordable, and for that we need a much larger effort, rethinking how we go about educating future generations beyond high school.

Providing a much larger public component would be a good start.

Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, columnist and reporter since 1984. His new book, “Calm Command: U.S. Chief Justice Melville Fuller in His Times, 1888-1910, will be published later this year. He welcomes comment at

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