Supreme Court appears divided on Oregon’s anti-homeless camping law – The Washington Post

Supreme Court appears divided on Oregon’s anti-homeless camping law – The Washington Post

Supreme Court justices expressed concern Monday about punishing homeless people who sleep outside when they have nowhere else to go, while also questioning how to ensure local and state leaders have necessary flexibility to address the growing number of homeless people across the country.

Court consideration of a package of Oregon anti-camping laws could lead to the most significant ruling on the rights of unhoused people in decades, with potentially far-reaching implications for state capitals and city ​​streets.

All along A During more than two hours of debate, the justices appeared divided along ideological lines, with conservatives who make up the court’s majority suggesting that policymakers, not judges, should set local rules for dealing with homeless people.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked the Biden administration’s lawyer: “Why do you think these nine people are the best people to judge and weigh these policy judgments?”

Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh also expressed concerns about “micromanagement” of homeless policy by federal courts.

The court’s three liberal justices aggressively questioned the city attorney for Grants Pass, Oregon, criticizing his laws because they appear to criminalize the most basic human needs.

“Sleep is a biological necessity,” Justice Elena Kagan said. “And for a homeless person who has nowhere to go, sleeping in public is a lot like breathing in public.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor questioned where people are supposed to sleep in a city that is short on shelter beds.

“Where will we put them if every city, every town, every village lacks compassion? » Sotomayor pressed. “Are they supposed to commit suicide without sleeping? »

City attorney Theane Evangelis defended the laws and highlighted the harm that can be caused by people living on the streets and in parks.

“When humans live in such conditions, we think it is not compassionate and there is no dignity in it,” she said.

The Supreme Court agreed to intervene in the case after hearing pleas from an unlikely coalition spanning the political spectrum, including liberal leaders like California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and state officials led by Republicans like Montana and Alabama. Their legal briefs described governments overwhelmed by the severity of the problem: More than 600,000 people are homeless nationwide, according to federal data, and nearly half sleep outside.

The case began in Grants Pass, after authorities began strictly enforcing a set of measures prohibiting sleeping or camping in public spaces like parks and in parked cars, imposing fines ranging from $75 to $295 $. Penalties increased significantly when unpaid and could potentially result in jail time or a ban from the park.

Three homeless people — Debra Blake, Gloria Johnson and John Logan — sued Grants Pass in 2018, claiming the city, with a population of 40,000, was unconstitutionally punishing them “because of their involuntary homeless status “. They cited the Eighth Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

But on Monday, it seemed unlikely that a majority of justices would extend Eighth Amendment protections to homeless people without access to shelter. Several appeared to be seeking closer common ground, but it was not immediately clear what that would look like — an uncertainty that reflects the national debate over solving the thorny problem of homelessness.

The one thing all the judges and lawyers seemed to agree on: Solving homelessness is complicated.

Outside the court, more than 500 protesters gathered on the sidewalk for a demonstration calling on the justices to reject Grants Pass’s arguments. Holding signs such as “Housing Solves Homelessness,” the crowd heard from the leaders of leading national advocacy organizations pushing for humane policies for the poor. Large groups from Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore boarded buses early in the morning to go to the courthouse for the protest.

There is officially More than 600 unhoused residents in Grants Pass, and another 1,000 live on the margins, but local service providers say at least twice as many are homeless. Grants Pass does not have a homeless shelter. Its only major transitional housing program, Gospel Rescue Mission, is a private religious facility with 138 beds and strict requirements for residents, such as regular chapel attendance and abstinence from substances and romantic relationships.

In 2020, a district court judge barred the city from enforcing its anti-camping ban in parks at night if no other shelter was available, saying the ban and penalties violated the Eighth Amendment .

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which covers Western states including Oregon, California and Washington, upheld the ruling in 2022. A closely divided 9th Circuit declined to rehear the case sitting with a full complement of judges. judges, sparking sharp dissent and warnings of “disastrous practical consequences” for hundreds of cities and millions of people.

Following the 9th Circuit panel’s ruling, Grants Pass’ attorney told the Supreme Court, encampments have mushroomed out of control across the West because restrictions on public camping no longer play their role. critical deterrent role, leading to increases in violent crime, drug overdoses, disease, fires and hazardous waste.

In response, advocates for the homeless said state and local authorities are still free to restrict tents in public spaces, clean up encampments and even impose fines on homeless people who refuse to other accommodation options. But the city can’t punish people who have no alternative, they argued.

“States have broad police powers, but they do not include the power to shift the burden of social problems like poverty to other communities, nor the power to satisfy public demand by compromising individual constitutional rights.” , attorney Kelsi Corkran said Monday.

The Biden administration has charted something of a middle path between the city and the unhoused plaintiffs. Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler told the court that anti-camping laws are unconstitutional when they target people who don’t have access to indoor shelter.

“By banning sleeping, the city is essentially saying you can’t live in Grants Pass. It’s the equivalent of a ban,” Kneedler said.

But he urged the justices to send the case back to lower courts to ensure the city’s laws aren’t blocked across the board. Such bans should always be allowed, he said, if an investigation shows that a given person actually has access to a shelter.

Both sides in the case known as City of Grants Pass v. Johnson cited a decades-old Supreme Court decision to support their conflicting arguments. The Biden administration and the homeless said the 9th Circuit ruling was consistent with a 1962 high court decision that struck down a California law criminalizing drug addiction, holding that the government could not criminally punish a person for of an involuntary status.

Grants Pass attorneys said the same decision draws a line between permissible sanctions for conduct and unconstitutional sanctions targeting a person’s status. Local laws, they said, aim to protect public safety and health and target the spread of encampments.

They urged the justices to overturn the 9th Circuit’s decision, which they said has “shifted contested social policy issues away from elected officials and created a paralysis that harms both those living in the encampments and the general public.” .

Thebault reported from Los Angeles. Kyle Swenson in Washington contributed to this report.


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