The Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday that the government can seize a person’s Social Security benefits to pay old student loans.
Retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote the decision that went against a disabled man, James Lockhart, who had sued, claiming he needed his $874 monthly check to pay for food and medication.
His government benefits had been cut by 15 percent to cover debts that he incurred for college in the 1980s.
Mr. Lockhart also lost at the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which said that Congress had eliminated a 10-year time limit on the government’s right to seek repayment on defaulted student loans by seizing payments, including Social Security.
The Bush administration had maintained that the case was important because outstanding student loans estimated at $33 billion, which includes about $7 billion in delinquent debt. Of the delinquent loans, about half are more than 10 years old, government lawyers have said.
Justices were called on to clarify federal laws that sent conflicting messages about the collection of loans that are more than a decade old.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia said Congress “unambiguously authorized, without exception, the collection of 10-year-old student loan debt … in doing so, it flatly contracted and thereby effectively repealed part of the Social Security Act.”
He complained that Congress, in passing laws, often wrongly claims these acts cannot be changed in the future. Such an attempt “does no favor to the members of Congress, and to those who assist in drafting their legislation,” Justice Scalia wrote.
Groups such as the AARP and the National Consumer Law Center had urged the court to safeguard Social Security benefits in the Lockhart case, arguing they “are critical in preserving a measure of financial independence for older and disabled workers.”
Mr. Lockhart, 67, a former postal worker who lives in public housing in Seattle, has heart disease, diabetes and other health problems. He has about $77,000 in student loan debt.
Meanwhile yesterday, the court heard oral arguments in two cases on jury deliberations on death sentences.
In the Oregon case, the justices were asked to decide whether a jury can consider “residual” or lingering doubts they have about a defendant’s guilt in deciding whether to impose life in prison or the death penalty.
The state of Kansas also asked the high court to determine whether the Constitution bars states from allowing juries to impose a death sentence if they conclude that aggravating evidence of the crime’s brutality and mitigating factors are equal in weight.
In both arguments, the justices struggled to understand the positions of attorneys for the death row inmates who wanted the high court to stay out of their cases.
“You win on the Eighth Amendment … and when you leave the courthouse, you say, ‘I don’t want it anymore,’” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. told Richard L. Wolf, the attorney for an Oregon death row inmate.
During the arguments in the Kansas case, Justice Scalia said jurors always have a way out — they can grant mercy to a defendant.
“That clearly exists under (the Kansas) scheme. … What else do you have to do?” he asked of attorney Rebecca E. Woodman, who represents the Kansas inmate.
Also yesterday, Chief Justice Roberts announced his first ruling, in a case involving legal fees. The 9-0 decision backed insurance companies, which argued they should not have to pay legal fees of a New Mexico couple in a case that was shuffled from state court to federal court, then back to state court.