WASHINGTON — Former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos must testify in a class-action lawsuit about her handling of student loan forgiveness claims, which involved delays in the administration's decision-making and ultimate denial of a significant number of the applications, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
In a 12-page ruling, Judge William Alsup denied a motion to quash a subpoena for the Cabinet secretary’s deposition, writing that “exceptional circumstances” warrant her to sit for one.
The ruling, first reported by Politico, says those circumstances “warrant the deposition of Secretary DeVos for three hours, excluding breaks,” though he acknowledged that it’s “rare” for courts to authorize depositions of Cabinet secretaries.
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Alsup, who sits on the U.S. district court for northern California, wrote that former presidents have had to comply with subpoenas, including Richard Nixon, who was ordered to provide White House tapes, and Bill Clinton, who had to provide videotaped testimony during independent counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation.
“If judicial process runs to presidents, it runs to Cabinet secretaries — especially former ones,” Alsup wrote.” The Supreme Court, nevertheless, requires some deference to agency heads summoned to explain their actions.”
The lawsuit was brought by 160,000 student loan borrowers who claim they were defrauded by for-profit colleges and applied to the Department of Education for student loan forgiveness. The department, however, implemented a 18-month halt to issuing final decisions, and once it began making them again, denial letters went out at an “alarming rate,” the judge wrote.
Alsup said that the record shows that DeVos was personally involved in the decision-making process and said that lawyers for the suit will ask whether the former secretary “directed her subordinates to cease issuing student-loan borrower-defense decisions, or whether she tacitly approved of the halt once manifested.”
He also said there are questions about the “flash flood of blanket-form denial letters.”
The judge is allowing for a two-week pause of the order in case of an appeal. He also scheduled a June 3 hearing for the suit.