Supreme Court to review local bans on homeless sleeping in public

The Supreme Court said Friday it would consider whether local laws prohibiting homeless people from sleeping on public property is cruel and unusual punishment barred by the Constitution.

The Oregon city of Grants Pass asked the high court to review a lower court’s decision to block it from enforcing its public camping ordinance, writing that the decision “cemented a conflict” with California courts that have upheld similar ordinances. 

The city cited a slew of potential consequences for allowing the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision to stand, including crime, fires, environmental harm, “the reemergence of medieval diseases,” drug overdoses and deaths.  

“(The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals’) decisions are legally wrong and have tied the hands of local governments as they work to address the urgent homelessness crisis,” Theane Evangelis, a lawyer for Grants Pass, said in a statement.

“The tragedy is that these decisions are actually harming the very people they purport to protect,” she continued. “We look forward to presenting our arguments to the Supreme Court this spring.”

Grant Pass’s request for the Supreme Court to take up the case was backed by officials in San Francisco and Phoenix, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and 20 Republican state attorneys general. 

The Eighth Amendment is at the heart of the case. It prevents “cruel and unusual punishments” from being imposed, in addition to excessive fines or bail.  

“For years, political leaders have chosen to tolerate encampments as an alternative to meaningfully addressing the western region’s severe housing shortage,” attorneys representing the city’s homeless population wrote to the justices, urging them to let stand the lower court’s ruling favoring them. 

“As the homelessness crisis has escalated, these amici have faced intense public backlash for their failed policies, and it is easier to blame the courts than to take responsibility for finding a solution,” they added.

The Supreme Court previously declined to consider a similar appeal of the lower court’s 2019 ruling, which found that sleeping outdoors on public property — when there is no option to sleep indoors — can’t be criminalized “on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.” 

“The fact is the Ninth Circuit’s narrow ruling is consistent with decades of Supreme Court precedent. The U.S. Constitution does not allow cities to punish people for having an involuntary status, including the status of being involuntarily homeless. We look forward to presenting our case to the Court,” Ed Johnson, director of litigation at the Oregon Law Center and lead counsel for the respondents, said in a statement. 

Friday’s announcement came one day after the 9th Circuit upheld a lower decision prohibiting San Francisco from removing homeless people from the streets without first offering them shelter. 

The court’s brief, unsigned order — as is typical — likely places it in the final set of cases to be argued this term. Such a timeline would result in a decision by the end of June. 

The justices on Friday also agreed to step into the Starbucks union fight as well as cases related to visas, arbitration and a remedy-exhaustion requirement. 

Dan Butcher

Dan Butcher (aka HP Pundit) is not a Democrat or Republican. He is a free thinking independent bringing you news and commentary with a dose of much needed common sense.

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