Supreme Court could hear court case to reshape rules around homeless camp bans

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San Diego officials are looking at supporting the city that’s asking for the high court to weigh in

SAN DIEGO — San Diego city officials are debating joining a federal court case out of Oregon that is looking to get the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on rules that have barred cities from clearing homeless encampments without available shelter beds.

One of the items on the agenda for the City Council’s regularly-held closed door session on Monday is a discussion about possible participation in the case, City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Gloria Johnson, et al.

The lawsuit, which was brought by three homeless residents in the City of Grants Pass, sought to overturn city ordinances that restricted camping and sleeping in public through fines and other regulations.

In 2020, a court sided with the unhoused plaintiffs, saying in its decision that it was a violation of the Eighth Amendment to punish people for sleeping in public when there is no where else for them to go.

That decision built on the precedent set by the Ninth Circuit in the 2018 case Martin v. City of Boise, which held that the “cruel and unusual punishment” clause of the Eight Amendment narrowly prevents governments from imposing criminal penalties on homeless individuals “for sitting, sleeping, or lying outside on public property” if there is no accessible alternative.

The defendants in the Grants Pass case, however, attempted to appeal the lower court decision.

Last year, a three-judge panel from the Ninth Circuit upheld the lower court’s ruling, prompting the city to request all judges on the federal court to hear the case. In July, the Ninth Circuit court’s majority voted not to reconsider.

Now, Grants Pass is again attempting to get another opinion, filing a petition to get the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.

In the city’s petition, they posed the question: “Does the enforcement of generally applicable laws regulating camping on public property constitute ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ prohibited by the Eighth Amendment?”

It’s worth noting that the City of Boise also attempted to appeal to the highest court in the land, but the justices at the time declined to take it up.

San Diego, which recently implemented similar camping ordinances, is now looking at possibly joining the case as as an “amicus curiae,” or a “friend of the court.” These are generally people or groups who are not party to a case, but they can get permission to submit briefs intending to influence the court’s decision.

As the discussion about the case is during closed session, it is unclear at this time what the city intends to do if they choose to file as an amicus curiae in the case.

FOX 5 reached out to San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria’s office and Councilmember Stephen Whitburn, who proposed the city’s camping ordinance, but did not immediately hear back.

Earlier this week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom similarly announced his intention to intervene in a different ongoing federal case out of San Francisco relating to the cleaning up of homeless encampments.

“I’ve had it,” he said during an interview with Politico in Sacramento. “We’re going to intervene, and I hope this goes to the Supreme Court, and that’s a hell of a statement for a progressive democrat out of Supreme Court to say.”

He added that federal judges have “gone too far” in interpreting the Martin v. Boise and earlier Grants Pass rulings.

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