Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee led Harris County in joining 40 other local governments in 23 states to file an amicus brief in Biden v. Nebraska, the case challenging the United States Department of Education’s plan to provide student debt relief of up to $20,000 per student borrower. Harris County and the other governments have sided with the Biden administration and student loan forgiveness advocates, asking the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) to undo a lower court’s order halting the administration’s plan for student loan cancellation.
“Student loan debt has become an inescapable financial burden for many Americans, including first-generation college students whose parents couldn’t afford to pay their way through school,” said Menefee is a statement released by his office. “We filed this brief to give those folks relief.”
Menefee’s statement also said, “Not only does the student debt relief plan have a positive impact on people who are drowning in student loan payments, it also helps the County by allowing these people to more fully participate in the local economy.”
Menefee argues that leaders at all levels of government need to be discussing making college more attainable for future generations rather than attempting to dissuade potential students from going to college, which is currently “unreasonably expensive.”
The Department of Education’s plan would eliminate the student debt burden of an estimated 20 million people nationwide and significantly reduce the burden for over 20 million more.
Menefee’s filing of the brief was unanimously approved by the Harris County Commissioners Court.
SCOTUS argument in the case is set for February 28.
But for now, the Defender spoke with Menefee to obtain his additional insights on the student debt relief issue, and Republican efforts to block it.
DEFENDER: I received word that you filed a brief with the US Supreme Court regarding student debt relief. Can you give us more information about the actions you recently took?
CHRISTIAN MENEFEE: The Biden administration proposed a rule from the Department of Education to provide a certain amount of student loan debt relief to people throughout this country. And immediately we saw states’ attorneys general from some of the most conservative states, including Texas, file a lawsuit to undo that rule. And what we did today was we stepped in with about 40 other local governments from across the country and filed a brief with the Supreme Court of the United States, asking them to undo a lower court order and to allow the Biden administration to proceed with its plan to forgive some level of student loan for folks throughout the country.
DEFENDER: Why was it important for you to add your name or for you to add the name of Harris County to this brief?
MENEFEE: Like many folks throughout this county and throughout our country, I’m a first-generation college student. I wasn’t in a situation where I was born into a trust fund and my parents could afford to pay for college. We see that student loan debt can become crippling and it disproportionately impacts Black folks. So, for me, this is about allowing people fair access to generational wealth. This is about allowing people fair access to the American dream. And you can’t get there if you have the burden of loans hanging over your head. Every single student, from any background, in Harris County, throughout this country, should have a fair opportunity to pursue a higher education. And we’ve allowed college to get so expensive in this country that it’s off-limits to many folks. So, this brief that we filed today was about allowing a portion of student loan forgiveness to go through the Biden administration so that we can start to shift the conversation in this country and make education more affordable and more accessible.
DEFENDER: Sounds like you just answered my next question. I’m going to ask it anyway just in case there’s anything you wanted to add. Why do you want the lower court’s order to be overturned?
MENEFEE: This case is largely about whether the states even have the ability to file a lawsuit. When you file lawsuit, you have to be injured in some way. How is the state of Texas injured through student loan forgiveness? If anything, the good people who make up Harris County, the good people who make up the state of Texas, these folks would benefit tremendously from it. I think this is an example of our attorney general just being a hater, and stepping in and trying to take away folks’ fair access to education. And you’re seeing other attorneys general who filed this lawsuit taking the same stance as Ken Paxton, our attorney general. I think it’s important for folks to realize that not every single family out there makes $200,000 a year. Not every single family out there makes $100,000 a year. The kids in all households in Harris County and throughout our country, should have a fair opportunity to seek a higher education. And there should never be a situation where elected leaders are standing in the way of that.
DEFENDER: So, please break this down to me. What is in it for Ken Paxton and other like-minded attorneys general to block student loan forgiveness?
MENEFEE: I think it’s two things. One is political posturing. Because the presidential administration of another party wants to do something, they don’t want it to be done. Just because your opposition wants it done, therefore you do not want it done. But the second thing is, some folks argue, “Why should my tax dollars be spent paying for debt that somebody else has taken out?” And I think that’s just inconsistent with how we conduct ourselves as Americans. America is all about doing what you can for your neighbor, doing what you can for the least, and the loss and the voiceless. And I think that it’s in everybody’s interest to ensure that everybody has fair access to higher education. And what better way to spend our tax dollars than lifting everybody up and ensuring that we are a more educated society, not crippled by the burden of massive debt because education is too expensive now.
DEFENDER: So, how would a ruling in your favor benefit the people of Harris County in general, and more specifically, Black people in Harris County?
MENEFEE: If the Supreme Court of the United States disagrees with the 8th Circuit and with the trial court, then the injunction will no longer exist, and the Biden administration will be in a position to proceed with its forgiveness plan. That’s going to impact folks throughout Harris County. But this is specific to Black folks, as well. We talk a lot about making descendants of slaves whole for slavery, right? And there’s been a lot of different conversations about what that looks like. Well, one way is to provide folks equitable access to our higher education institutions. And so, student loan forgiveness, I think is going to be an important part of that conversation. And there are Black people throughout this county, throughout this state, who are still trying to pay off student loans that they took out five years ago, 10 years ago, 15 years ago. And many of them were first-generation college students, and they took out that debt and in the hopes of being able to provide a better life for their family than they had when they were growing up. So, I think it’s instrumental to ensuring that folks are able to lift up the quality of life with their families. And it is an important initial step in growing generational wealth, which is something that Black folks are far behind on in this country.
DEFENDER: Final question. What’s your prediction? Will this effort move the needle forward or will other actions be necessary afterward?
MENEFEE: I tell you, I try to be very careful about predicting, with this Supreme Court. But I’m hopeful that they’re going to be thoughtful in their analysis, to see the arguments, and that they’re going to allow this student loan forgiveness plan to proceed. The big question is how is Ken Paxton harmed from folks in Harris County and other places in Texas getting their student loans forgiven? I think our attorney general should focus more of his efforts on protecting us here in Texas, and not trying to meddle in the work that the federal government is doing to get people out from under the debt of student loans.