A majority of the Supreme Court appeared sympathetic on Monday to the Obama administration’s arguments that attorney fee awards under a key fee shifting statute belong to the clients, not the attorneys who earn them, and the awards can be offset to pay debts owed to the government.

In Astrue v. Ratliff, Assistant to the Solicitor General Anthony Yang and James Leach of Rapid City, S.D., sparred over what each claimed was the “plain meaning” of the Equal Access to Justice Act. The act awards attorney fees and expenses to “a prevailing party other than the United States” in any civil action against the government unless the court finds the government’s position was “substantially justified” or an award would be unjust.