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Supreme Court upholds Oregon city law targeting homeless

The Constitution does not prevent public camping laws as a response to growing crisis, court rules

Homeless rights activists rally outside of the Supreme Court on April 22, the day of oral argument in City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson.
Homeless rights activists rally outside of the Supreme Court on April 22, the day of oral argument in City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

The Supreme Court upheld on Friday an Oregon city’s law criminalizing public camping, ruling against the Biden administration and advocates who said the law and others like it would punish people with nowhere else to go.

The majority opinion in the 6-3 decision, written by Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, said the Grants Pass law did not violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment,” and that judges should not decide the best ways to address homelessness.

“Homelessness is complex. Its causes are many. So may be the public policy responses required to address it. At bottom, the question this case presents is whether the Eighth Amendment grants federal judges primary responsibility for assessing those causes and devising those responses. It does not,” Gorsuch wrote.

The decision notes how “cities across the American West face a homelessness crisis” and communities “of all sizes are grappling with how best to address challenges like these.”

A handful of federal judges cannot “begin to ‘match’ the collective wisdom the American people possess in deciding ‘how best to handle’ a pressing social question like homelessness,” Gorsuch wrote.

Gorsuch’s decision also held that the Constitution did not protect against criminalization of involuntary activities that may be associated with a status like homelessness.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a dissent joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson, argued that the majority made it easier for the government to criminalize homelessness.

Sotomayor wrote that the court sided with local governments who complained about the troubles caused by their homeless citizens instead of the rights of Americans.

“Sleep is a biological necessity, not a crime. For some people, sleeping outside is their only option,” Sotomayor wrote.

Sotomayor, reading from her dissent from the bench, said the majority showed a lack of empathy for people with no recourse. She wrote the ignored the court’s responsibility to safeguard the rights of all Americans, even when doing so is “uncomfortable and unpopular.”

The Grants Pass law prohibits anyone from sleeping or camping on public property “for the purpose of maintaining a temporary place to live,” with first civil citations and possible jail time for multiple violations.

In a class action lawsuit on behalf of homeless residents of the city, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit threw out the statute on the grounds that it unconstitutionally punished homeless people when they had nowhere else to go.

The appeals court found that law violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Enforcement of the law has been paused as the court challenge plays out.