Nineteen states currently allow government agencies to revoke the professional licenses—including law licenses—of student loan defaulters. But that may change.
U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Marco Rubio on Thursday introduced a bill that would prohibit states from suspending professional licenses and driver’s licenses of those who fail to pay their federal student loans.
The bill, dubbed the Protecting Job Opportunities for Borrowers Act, could be a lifeline for lawyers struggling to pay back their loans who now risk losing their ability to practice law. Should the bill pass, after two years states would no longer be able to revoke professional licenses due to loan defaults, and defaulters could file for injunctive relief should states not comply.
“State governments punishing people struggling with student loans by taking away drivers’ and professional licenses is wrong,” Warren said in an announcement of the bill. “These policies don’t make sense, because they make it even harder for people to put food on the table and get out of debt.”
Rubio called the license revocations a “Catch-22” that prevents people from being able to work and pay off their loans.
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It’s unclear how many attorneys have lost their law licenses due to student loan defaults. Default rates among lawyers are difficult to ascertain because only standalone law schools report figures to the U.S. Department of Education that cover just law students. Default rates from law schools attached to larger universities are included in the data from the entire campus. But among those 23 standalone schools, the rates of those who defaulted over the course of two years ranged from a low of 0.2 percent to a high of 4.8 percent in 2014.
Most state agencies don’t track or report the number of professional licenses revoked due to student loan defaults, according to the The New York Times. Through public record requests, the Times identified 8,700 cases in which people lost their licenses or were suspended, but noted the actual number was likely much larger. That count includes numerous professions, including lawyers, teachers, nurses, real estate brokers and barbers, among others.
California, Texas, Florida, Massachusetts and Georgia are among the states that currently allow the seizure of professional licenses.
Among the lawyers who have found themselves shut out due to their inability to repay their loans is former Houston attorney Frank Santulli III. Texas revoked his license in 2009 after he failed to repay his student loans and other debts. Santulli, who graduated from Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law in 1998, said at the time that he had about $67,000 in outstanding debt.
Reached Thursday, Santulli, who now works as a mediator, said the new bill is a step in the right direction.
“I remember when my issue first came to light, medical doctors and other professional licensed individuals were in great disbelief that an agency could revoke a license,” he said. “Basically, in most professions which require a state license, there are and can be many other ways a state can monitor professional or moral conduct. Revoking someone’s professional license for past debt, slow pay, or student loan default is more punitive and not curative or rationally related.”
Santulli said the decision to revoke his license derailed his legal career, which he is still working to restore.
Chris Chapman, president of legal education advocacy organization AccessLex Institute, said the bill looks promising, based on the limited details made public.
“AccessLex hasn’t published a formal position on this legislation since we haven’t seen it, but I can say with some confidence that we will be likely to support it,” Chapman said Thursday.