This week, we celebrate Veterans Day and honor those who served in our armed forces. To ensure that our veterans and servicemembers can enjoy the rights and protections they have sacrificed to uphold, Congress has passed a variety of laws to protect them. Rightly so; our veterans deserve affordable health care, employment and consumer protections, and access to quality education. Sometimes, however, veterans’ rights are violated, and they must rely on our federal courts to enforce them.
On this Veterans Day, it’s important to highlight how much #CourtsMatter to America’s veterans. For example, in a recent case, a federal appeals court sided with thousands of Vietnam War veterans suffering from health problems linked to Agent Orange exposure. These Navy veterans took their fight for disability benefits to the courts, where a 9-2 judge majority found them eligible for such benefits. Despite opposition from the Trump-appointed Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs, the federal courts stepped in to ensure that these sailors got the disability benefits they earned during their service. In another case, a federal court recently allowed, for the first time, a class-action lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs to proceed. This case seeks relief for the thousands of veterans facing unacceptably long wait times for the Department to certify their disability benefits claims. Yet again, federal courts have acted to protect the rights of veterans where other branches of government failed.
Further illustrative of the role the courts play in protecting our veterans are the thousands of former service members who were targets of fraudulent and deceptive practices by for-profit colleges – exorbitant tuition, abysmal student outcomes, unqualified professors, taxpayer dollars spent on marketing and pocketed as profit, and regulatory evasion and manipulation. These programs often turn out to be scams, leaving students with worthless degrees and crippling debt. Worse still, these businesses often found veterans particularly vulnerable targets for their predatory practices. In fact, according to a Senate HELP Committee report, “The percentage of veterans attending a public college has declined precipitously, from 62 percent in 2009 to just 50 percent in 2013. During the same period, the percentage of veterans enrolling in for-profit colleges increased from 23 to 31 percent of total enrollees.”
Veterans service and military service organizations have sounded the alarm about these fraud schemes, writing, “Service members, veterans, and their families and survivors are specifically targeted for fraud and are seen ‘as nothing more than dollar signs in uniform’” by unscrupulous colleges. The American Legion also described the harm done to veterans, who were “promised their credits would transfer when they wouldn’t, given false or misleading job placement rates in marketing, promised one educational experience when they were recruited, but given something completely different.” Shockingly, 66% of veterans who attended for-profit colleges using their GI Bill benefits left the educational program they paid for without a degree. As the Vietnam Veterans of America put it, “Veterans are left holding the proverbial bag.”
The Obama Administration tried to crack down on fraud in higher education, among other things implementing two important rules: the State Authorization of Distance Education Rule and the Borrower Defense Rule. The first requires schools to disclose to students whether their programs meet state requirements for certification or licensure to ensure that graduates can count on their degrees to qualify them for a job in the state. The latter made it easier for students to receive debt relief when they have been victims of illegal or deceptive tactics by these colleges.
Unfortunately, when Betsy Devos became Secretary of the Department of Education, she delayed the implementation of both of these rules. Advocates fought back, challenging these delays in the courts. In both cases, federal judges ruled that the delays were unlawful. Without the decisions of these judges, Devos could have refused to enforce these critical protections, leaving veterans and other students stuck with useless degrees and buried under tens of thousands of dollars of debt. It cannot be overstated how much #CourtsMatter here; federal judges were the last line of defense for stopping the predation against vulnerable veterans seeking the education they deserve.
To add insult to injury, the Trump administration is now trying to install Betsy Devos’ right-hand man into a seat on one of the most powerful courts in the country. Steven Menashi worked as Devos’ Deputy General Counsel for Postsecondary Education and later, Acting General Counsel. In these positions, Menashi helped Devos roll back the Obama Administration’s protections for veterans and other students. Further, as the New York Times just recently uncovered, Menashi (who opposes need-based financial aid because it hurts wealthy people) was the architect of DeVos’s illegal effort to misuse social security data to cheat thousands of student borrowers who were defrauded by for-profit colleges. Again, it was a federal judge who was critical; Judge Sallie Kim found that DeVos had violated the law by sharing student borrower information, such as Social Security numbers and birth dates, to obtain their earnings data. The judge ordered the Education Department to end the practice and stop trying to collect deceptively obtained student debt. And, the judge held DeVos in contempt when she refused to follow the court order.
Now, Trump wants the Senate to hand Menashi, who helped DeVos undermine the rights of veterans and other students, a lifetime appointment to Thurgood Marshall’s former seat on the Second Circuit. AFJ strongly opposes Menashi’s confirmation and has worked to raise awareness about Menashi’s attacks on our rights.
As we honor the incredible sacrifices of our veterans this week, it’s a perfect time to remember that #CourtsMatter and those who sit in lifetime seats on the federal bench are critical.