Supreme Court allows city’s ban on public homeless encampments 

The Supreme Court has upheld a Grants Pass, Oregon, ordinance banning public camping. Photo by Madalina Vasiliu. 
The Supreme Court has upheld a Grants Pass, Oregon, ordinance banning public camping. Photo by Madalina Vasiliu. 

By Matthew Vadum 
Contributing Writer 

The Supreme Court on Friday on a 6-3 vote upheld a local ordinance banning public camping, which activists claimed unconstitutionally punished homeless people for being homeless. 

The majority opinion in City of Grants Pass v. Johnson was written by Justice Neil Gorsuch. 

Three justices: Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ketanji Brown Jackson, dissented. 

The Supreme Court held that the enforcement of generally applicable laws regulating camping on public property does not constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. 

Challengers had advanced the novel argument that the local law in Grants Pass, Oregon, violated the Eighth Amendment’s guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment. 

The city asked for a lower court ruling barring it from enforcing its public camping ordinance to be lifted, saying that the court made mistakes when interpreting the law. 

Grants Pass, population 39,000, is in southwest Oregon on the California border. 

The ruling comes as cities across the nation grapple with the growing homelessness crisis. More than 580,000 people experienced homelessness in 2022, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has reported. 

Previously, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit held that Grants Pass was barred by the U.S. Constitution from enforcing criminal or civil penalties for camping on public lands. The court held that governments may not prosecute individuals for sleeping outdoors when no indoor space is available. 

The 9th Circuit had affirmed the July 2020 ruling of U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Clarke of the U.S. District Court in Oregon, who found that Grants Pass’ “policy and practice of punishing homelessness violated the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause of the Eighth Amendment.” 

Clarke held that Martin v. Boise, a 9th Circuit decision from 2019, was a controlling precedent in the case. That circuit court ruling said the Constitution “prohibits punishing people for engaging in unavoidable human acts, such as sleeping or resting outside when they have no access to shelter,” the judge wrote. 

In Martin, the circuit court found that “‘so long as there is a greater number of homeless individuals in [a city] than the number of available beds [in shelters],’ a city cannot punish homeless individuals for ‘involuntarily sitting, lying, and sleeping in public.’” 

To “criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors” would be to punish them based “on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.” 

The Martin ruling was based in part on a Supreme Court ruling in Robinson v. California (1962), which held that states may not punish a person for a mere status or condition, such as a medical condition. 

“Even one day in prison would be a cruel and unusual punishment for the ‘crime’ of having a common cold,” the late Justice Potter Stewart wrote. 

Paul J. Larkin and Zack Smith of The Heritage Foundation had previously criticized the 9th Circuit’s decision to uphold the district court ruling as an example of “result-oriented jurisprudence at its worst, proof that an intellectually dishonest judge can reach any result he or she wants just by writing grammatically correct sentences and sprinkling in a few citations to, or quotations from, Supreme Court decisions.” 

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