The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Tuesday regarding President Joe Biden’s effort to unilaterally cancel hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. 

The first session, Biden v. Nebraska, dealt with six states’ complaint that Biden’s order violates the separation of powers and the Administrative Procedure Act. Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa, Arkansas, Kansas, and South Carolina argued they have standing to sue the Biden administration because of their role as holders and servicers of student loans. 

The second challenge, Department of Education v. Brown, was brought by two borrowers left out of Biden’s program. They argued they were injured by the Biden administration’s failure to follow proper administrative procedure, which would have allowed them to weigh in on the plan and advocate for one more beneficial to them.

The justices’ reasoning throughout oral arguments on Tuesday made it clear the Biden administration’s only real hope is to persuade the bench that both challenges lack legal standing. Chief Justice John Roberts repeatedly questioned the legality of Biden’s “half-trillion dollar” program, saying the justices take very seriously the idea of separation of powers and that power should be divided to prevent its abuse.”

“This is a case that presents extraordinarily serious, important issues about the role of Congress and about the role that we should exercise in scrutinizing that,” Roberts added.

Roberts went on to cite another example in which the court struck down the executive branch’s attempt to enact policy without congressional approval: when the Trump administration tried to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

When Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar argued the administration was acting within the bounds of the authority Congress gave to it in the HEROES Act, which says the Education Department may “waive or modify any statutory or regulatory provision applicable to the student financial assistance programs” when “necessary in connection with a war or other military operation or national emergency,” Roberts again expressed doubt. 

“I think most casual observers would say if you’re going to give up that much amount of money, if you’re going to affect the obligations of that many Americans on a subject that’s of great controversy, they would think that’s something for Congress to act on,” he said.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh agreed, arguing that some of the court’s “biggest mistakes” arose from deference to “assertions of executive or emergency power,” while some of the court’s “finest moments” came when the bench pushed back “against presidential assertions of emergency power.”

Roberts, Justice Samuel Alito, and Justice Neil Gorsuch also pressed the Biden administration on the fairness of his student loan bailout. Roberts presented a hypothetical in which two high school graduates both take out loans—one for his college education, and the other for his lawncare start-up. Why is it fair to forgive the former’s loans but not the latter’s, Roberts asked, especially when the former graduate’s income is likely to be much higher?

The Biden administration’s defense of the program found a welcome audience in the court’s three liberal justices, with Justice Elena Kagan at one point scoffing at “all this business about executive power.” But by and large, the bench appeared thoroughly unconvinced that Biden has the authority to enact such a sweeping change to the education establishment’s borrowing system. 

This is welcome news to those of us who are tired of Biden abusing his emergency powers to unilaterally impose a radical agenda that he knows he can’t pass through Congress. As Kavanaugh put it, some of the best cases in the court’s history are those in which the bench puts the executive back in his place.