Why an Oregon Case Before the Supreme Court Matters So Much to California

Why an Oregon Case Before the Supreme Court Matters So Much to California


The Supreme Court began hearing a case yesterday that could have profound implications for how the United States deals with its escalating homelessness crisis.

The case, City of Grants Pass v. Johnson, asks whether fining homeless people for sleeping outside when there isn’t adequate shelter space for them amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Though the case originated in Oregon, it is being watched across the country, perhaps nowhere more closely than in California.

More than 180,000 people are homeless in California, a figure that has grown significantly over the past decade. That is about one-third of the nation’s homeless people, a far greater share than California’s 12 percent of the population as a whole.

State and local officials say that their efforts to address homelessness have been hampered by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which oversees nine western states, including California. In a series of opinions since 2018, the appellate court has ruled that penalizing homeless people for sleeping outdoors when they have no alternative shelter violated the Eighth Amendment, which protects against cruel and unusual punishment.

On the ground, that has constrained cities that try to keep tent camps from proliferating in parks, on sidewalks and in other public spaces. Local officials in California say they are reluctant to enforce anti-camping ordinances on even a small scale, lest they be sued.

Advocates for homeless people argue that cities have plenty of other tools to protect public health and to keep sidewalks and parks open, and that they are avoiding an obvious but expensive legal solution to the problem: building more affordable housing.

But determining what’s legal can be time-consuming and expensive.

For instance, in San Francisco, which is embroiled in a lawsuit over encampments, a sweeping injunction based on the Grants Pass decision and other Ninth Circuit rulings has complicated law enforcement around downtown tent camps for more than a year. State legislators in Sacramento have repeatedly quashed bills that sought to ban homeless encampments near schools, transit stops and other places, in part because of questions about their constitutionality.

The case before the Supreme Court on Monday involved an anti-camping ordinance in Grants Pass, Ore. Building on its 2018 ruling in a case out of Boise, Idaho, that it was unconstitutional to arrest people for sleeping outdoors, the appellate court ruled in the Grants Pass case that it was also unconstitutional to fine them for sleeping outdoors with pillows, blankets or other bedding or shelter supplies. The city appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court.

In briefs, Gov. Gavin Newsom and a wide range of local California officials argue that, while they oppose “criminalizing” homelessness, the Ninth Circuit’s refusal to allow even civil penalties for violating anti-camping ordinances goes too far.

“The Supreme Court has an opportunity to strike a balance that allows officials to enforce reasonable limits on public camping while treating folks with compassion,” Newsom has said on social media.

The governor was careful to say that he was not weighing in on either side of the Grants Pass case, and my colleague Shawn Hubler notes that his call for a reversal of the Ninth Circuit’s opinion reflects an unusual alliance between Democratic and Republican leaders.

At a news conference last week, the governor — who has pumped more than $20 billion into programs to address homelessness in California since he was elected in 2018 — recalled pitching in to dismantle one tent camp in Oakland that “felt like a scene out of a ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ where, you know, thousands and thousands of rats appeared, running all around us.”

“This is, to me, just about common sense,” he said, “not about ideology.”

The Supreme Court’s conservative majority seemed sympathetic to Grants Pass officials on Monday, and appeared inclined to reverse the Ninth Circuit and find the city’s anti-camping ordinance to be constitutional. That would probably prompt cities across the country to take tougher stances on homeless encampments.

The case is expected to be decided by late June.

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Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.

Halina Bennet and Briana Scalia contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.

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