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The Public Servant
The newsletter of the ISBA’s Standing Committee on Government Lawyers

June 2007, vol. 8, no. 4

Student loan repayment assistance legislation moves forward in Congress

Senate Bill 442, the “John R. Justice Prosecutors and Defenders Incentive Act” sponsored by Illinois Senator Richard Durbin amends the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 to direct the Attorney General of the United States to assume the obligation to repay student loans for borrowers who agree to remain employed, for at least three years, as either state or local criminal prosecutors or state, local, or federal public defenders in criminal cases.

The Act would allow a borrower and the Attorney General to enter into an additional loan repayment agreement, after the initial required three-year period, for a successive period of service which may be less than three years. The Act limits the amount paid under such program on behalf of any borrower to $10,000 per calendar year and $60,000 lifetime. 

The Act was introduced by Senator Durbin on January 31, 2007. The legislation was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee and a hearing was held on February 27, 2007. Two of the four witnesses at that hearing were from Illinois. Paul A. Logli, State’s Attorney of Winnebago County and Chairman of the Board of the National District Attorneys Association, testified as did Jessica Bergeman, who serves as an Assistant State’s Attorney in Cook County. Logli testified as to the problems that both prosecutors and public defenders are having in recruiting and retaining lawyers who are coming out of law schools with mortgage-size student loan debts. Ms. Bergeman testified as to her own experience of trying to balance her desire to work in public service, accept the lower pay associated with public service, and manage her substantial student loans. 

Senator Durbin has introduced similar legislation in the last several years, but this year it appears that the Act is actually moving toward a floor vote in both Houses of Congress. On March 1, 2007, the Senate bill was passed out of the Judiciary Committee by voice vote. There were several amendments adopted during the markup, but none of them negatively impact the basic core of the legislation. 

Very similar bills, H.R. 893 and H.R. 916, have been introduced in the House. H.R. 893 is sponsored by Representative Ted Poe a Republican of Texas, while H.R. 916 is sponsored by Representative David Scott, Democrat of Georgia. The House had its own hearing on April 24 and testifying on behalf of government lawyers and specifically prosecutors was District Attorney Kamala Harris of San Francisco, California, who serves on the Board of the National District Attorneys Association. Ms. Harris testified before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security. The full House Judiciary Committee held its own markup session on H.R. 916, which is nearly identical to the Senate bill. That bill passed out of the House Judiciary Committee on May 2, 2007, and is now headed to the House floor. One of the significant changes made to the bill in the House Judiciary Committee was that the bill would actually authorize funding in the amount of $25 million per fiscal year for fiscal years 2008-2013 at which time the program will sunset. 

Unlike previous years, both bills have now passed out of respective House and Senate committees and hopefully will be headed towards consideration and passage before both Houses of Congress. Senator Durbin has had significant influence in drafting and sponsoring this important legislation, which has been the top legislative priority of the National District Attorneys Association. Both Durbin and the National District Attorneys Association have promoted student loan assistance for the last several years. It appears that Illinois Senator Barack Obama is also supportive of the Act. Illinois government lawyers should consider writing letters of encouragement and support to all members of the Illinois congressional delegation regarding the pending bills. 

Editors’ note: On May 15, 2007, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 916 by a vote of 341-73. The Illinois State Bar Association has also been a long-time supporter of such legislative proposals.