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Supreme Court Hears Opening Oral Arguments on Case Regarding the Rights of Unhoused Residents (1).pdf (69.87 kB)

Supreme Court Hears Opening Oral Arguments on Case Regarding the Rights of Unhoused Residents

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posted on 2024-05-17, 14:45 authored by Chloe Dunaj

On Monday, April 23rd, 2024, the Supreme Court heard the oral arguments for City of Grants Pass v. Johnson, a case that could have monumental ramifications for unhoused individuals in the nation.  

The case was initiated in Grants Pass, Oregon, a small town with a population of 38,000 people, with an estimated 50 to 600 persons being unhoused residents [1]. The city claims, regardless of the estimation, the number exceeds shelter beds in the town, forces individuals to live in public spaces such as parks [1]. The “anti-sleeping” ordinance, “anti-camping” ordinance, “park exclusion” ordinance, and “park exclusion appeals” ordinance are facing scrutiny from unhoused residents of Grants Pass. Violators of these ordinances are fined $295, and repeat offenders could be subject to criminal prosecution, with up to 30 days in jail [2]. Plaintiffs of this case include various unhoused residents who are challenging the law, arguing that it violates the Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment.  

A prior landmark case on unhoused individual’s rights was Martin v. City of Boise (2018). The case challenged Boise’s ordinances that outlawed sleeping in public, which could lead to criminal prosecution [3]. Another ordinance classified sleeping in public as disorderly conduct [3]. Challenges to the ordinances were originally dismissed in district court due to Boise’s Special Order 10-03, which entailed if there were no shelter available, unhoused residents cannot be cited for violating either ordinance [3]. The plaintiffs appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which rendered the ordinance unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment. The panel argued that the government could not criminalize unhoused individuals for sleeping outdoors, on public property, under the invalid assumption that they had a choice in the matter [3]. The court asserted that this violated the cruel and unusual punishment clause and created precedent for the nation on the matter of anti-camping and anti-sleeping ordinances. The ordinances in Grants Pass can mature into criminal penalties, which places them under scrutiny, according to the holding from Martin v. City of Boise (2018). The Supreme Court has yet to rule on the case, but many news outlets and legal organizations are speculating as to whether the justices will side with Grants Pass or not.  

Opening arguments on Monday began with petitioning arguments from Theane Evangelis, representing the city of Grants Pass. The more conservative justices, Thomas, Barret, Roberts, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh, appeared to agree with the city’s argument [4]. The city focused on the complications of being homeless and how it is best left to jurisdiction. Justices Jackson, Sotomayor, and Kagan argued against the city’s line of reasoning that contended homelessness is not protected under the Eighth Amendment [4]. If the Supreme Court is to side with the city of Grants Pass, this would be a landmark case regarding unhoused individuals and the criminalization of homelessness. It would set a new precedent and could potentially allow cities to create laws to criminally penalize unhoused individuals. If the Court sides with Johnson, further precedent on anti-camping ordinances would be affirmed and used as a federal benchmark for the nation. It would prevent cities from criminalizing homelessness, but even then, there are still steps cities can take to penalize unhoused residents.  

Regardless of the case outcome, homelessness cannot be solved with one federal ruling. The ruling has the potential to aid unhoused persons in their fight for their livelihood. If Johnson wins, state power can be limited and protection for unhoused persons under the Eighth Amendment ensured.

[1] City of Grants Pass v. Johnson, Oyez,  (last visited Apr 24, 2024).  

[2] Andrew Chung & John Kruzel, US Supreme Court scrutinizes anti-camping laws used against the homeless | reuters Reuters (2024), (last visited Apr 22, 2024). 

[3] Martin v. City of Boise, No. 15-35845, 9th Circuit, 2018. (last visited April 22, 2024). 

[4] Transcript of Oral Argument, Grants Pass v. Johnson, No. 23-175, 2024.



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