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Supreme Court: Unpaid student loans can be withheld from Social Security

Dec 8, 2005 | Post-Gazette

Retirees and other Social Security recipients who still haven't paid off their college loans may find that some of that debt is being deducted from their monthly checks.

The Supreme Court yesterday unanimously rejected the claim of a retired postal worker from Seattle that the federal government acted unlawfully in trying to recover $87,000 in federally insured student loans he took out in the 1980s.

The Treasury Department withheld the funds first from his Social Security disability check and, after he turned 65, from his retirement check. The cuts amounted to $93 a month, or 15 percent of his benefits.

Writing for the court, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor rejected both of the legal arguments raised by James Lockhart: that under a 1982 law the government couldn't recover funds that he had owed for more than 10 years and that Social Security benefits in particular were off-limits to repayment through payroll deduction.

Trying to make sense of what Justice O'Connor called the "interplay" of several statutes enacted from 1982 to 1996, the court concluded that Congress had abolished the 10-year statute of limitations on debt collection and explicitly included Social Security benefits in a 1996 law allowing the Treasury Department to withhold debt repayments from government checks.

The Social Security Act contains a provision saying that, in general, benefits are not "subject to execution, levy attachment garnishment or other legal processes," but provides an exception if Congress makes it clear that it is overriding that provision in a particular context.

Justice O'Connor said the Debt Collection Improvement Act of 1996 satisfied that condition. Justice Antonin Scalia filed a concurring opinion saying that no such explicit reference to the earlier law was necessary because one Congress cannot bind what a later Congress does.

The effect of yesterday's decision is likely to be significant as Americans born after World War II reach the age at which they will be eligible for Social Security retirement checks.

According to the Treasury Department, about $7.4 billion in student loan debt is delinquent. Of that amount, $5.7 billion reflects loans more than 10 years old. The department did not break that figure down into the number of individual debtors.

Yesterday, Mr. Lockhart's lawyer, Brian Wolfman, said that while he did not have precise statistics, there were "thousands and thousands of people like my client who are old and sick and now they are going to have 15 percent of their income taken."

In other action yesterday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in two cases in which lower courts made it harder for prosecutors to obtain a death sentence. In both cases, a majority of the justices seemed inclined to reverse the rulings.

In the first case, the justices were asked to overrule a holding by the Oregon Supreme Court that a convicted murderer can ask a jury for leniency because jurors might have lingering doubt about whether he committed the crime in the first place.

Randy Lee Guzek was sentenced to death in the 1987 murders of the aunt and uncle of a girlfriend. In one of several appeals, the Oregon Supreme Court said that under the Eighth Amendment which bans cruel and unusual punishments Mr. Guzek should have been able to offer alibi and other "mitigating" evidence about his guilt to a jury at the penalty phase.

Most justices reacted sympathetically to a claim by Oregon Solicitor General Mary H. Williams that "it is not cruel and unusual punishment to prevent a capital defendant from relitigating" his conviction. But Justice John Paul Stevens wondered if the case was properly before the high court because, according to Mr. Guzek's lawyer, Richard L. Wolf, the Oregon Supreme Court decision favorable to his client turned on state law.

In yesterday's other argument, the justices were asked by the attorney general of Kansas to reinstate sentencing instructions in that state that require a jury to vote for death when aggravating and mitigating factors are equal.

Attorney General Phill Kline told the justices that Kansas' jury instructions were constitutional because they allow convicted murderers to introduce and require jurors to consider all "mitigating evidence."

But Rebecca Woodman, the attorney for convicted murderer Michael L. Marsh, said that the Kansas rule ran afoul of Supreme Court precedents requiring "individualized determination" of whether a defendant deserves the death penalty.

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