Court OKs seizure of Social Security

In 9-0 ruling, justices agree benefits may be cut to pay off retirees' old student loans


WASHINGTON -- The government can seize part of a person's monthly Social Security benefit to pay off old student loans, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

The 9-0 ruling gives the government an extra way of collecting on more than $7 billion in delinquent student loans. It could cost retirees up to 15 percent of their monthly benefit.

Generally, Social Security benefits have been shielded from seizure. But Congress revised the law in 1996 to allow specifically for the collection of unpaid student loans, the justices said.

This "provides exactly the sort of express reference" that courts must honor, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote.

The ruling may come as bad news for many baby boomers who are near retirement age. While the government has backed billions of dollars in bank loans to college students, those loans become the government's debt if the former students default. Lawmakers have made clear that those debts should not be forgiven simply because the former students are disabled or retired.

In 2003, the government estimated it had been recouping about $400 million a year by seizing debtors' Social Security benefits.

The court was ruling in the case of James Lockhart, who attended four institutions of higher education between 1984 and 1989 and took out nine federally guaranteed loans. By 2002, he was disabled from diabetes and heart disease, and had $80,000 in unpaid student loans.

As a disabled person, Lockhart received a Social Security benefit, but the government withheld $93 per month to repay his student loans. His monthly benefit grew in 2003 when he reached retirement age, but the government then began withholding $143 per month.

Lockhart sued three years ago to block the seizure of his benefits, but he lost before a federal judge in Seattle and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The court also dived into the internal workings of jury deliberations in capital cases, debating whether jurors could have lingering doubts about a defendant's guilt after a conviction and whether they could find that evidence for and against the death penalty was evenly balanced.

Less than a week after the nation's 1,000th execution since states resumed capital punishment, the justices devoted their entire argument session to whether the Oregon and Kansas supreme courts had correctly interpreted the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

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 - and did little to support the rulings from the state courts that said the Constitution protects their clients.

"You win on the Eighth Amendment ... and when you leave the courthouse, you say, `I don't want it anymore,'" an incredulous Chief Justice John R. Roberts Jr. told attorney Richard L. Wolf, who represents an Oregon death row inmate.

During the arguments in the Kansas case, Justice Antonin Scalia said jurors, in weighing all of the evidence, 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 attorney Rebecca E. Woodman, who represents the Kansas inmate.

David G. Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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