SCOTUS Appears Split on Law Against Sleeping Outside

Critics say Oregon town's law criminalizes homelessness
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 22, 2024 7:05 PM CDT
SCOTUS Appears Split on Law Against Sleeping Outside
Activists demonstrate at the Supreme Court, Monday, April 22, 2024.   (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Liberal and conservative justices on the Supreme Court appeared to be split Monday on a major case dealing with homelessness—and with a conservative majority on the court, it appears poised to rule in favor of allowing cities to make their own rules. The case involves a challenge to a law in Grants Pass, Oregon, which fined people $295 for camping on public property or sleeping outside or in cars, with jail sentences for repeat offenders. Critics said the law criminalized homelessness. In 2022, a federal appeals court panel said city ordinances violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, NBC News reports. A decision is expected by late June.

  • Arguments. Lawyers for Grants Pass argued that the homelessness crisis "is a significant challenge for communities large and small throughout the nation" and the solution should not be to "place the federal courts in charge of this pressing social problem," the Washington Post reports. They said encampments and associated problems, including violent crime, have multiplied in the nine Western states covered by the appeal's court ruling, including California. Attorneys for homeless people who challenged the law said local authorities can still regulate or clear encampments—but they can't punish people when no shelter beds are available and they have nowhere else to go.

  • "Where are they supposed to sleep?" "Where do we put them if every city, every village, every town lacks compassion?" Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one of the court's liberals, said of unhoused people, per NBC News. "Where are they supposed to sleep?" Justice Elena Kagan likened sleeping to breathing, as both are "biological necessities."
  • Leaving the matter to local authorities. Chief Justice John Roberts and other conservatives suggested that the issue should be left to local policymakers instead of the country's top court, the Post reports. Roberts asked: "Why do you think these nine people are the best people to judge and weigh those policy judgments?"
  • A middle ground. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, one of the court's conservatives, proposed what the Times calls an "escape hatch"—a "necessity defense" against charges for people without any other place to sleep. The Biden administration filed a brief in support of neither side. Justice Department attorney Edwin Kneedler said Monday that there should not be an "absolute ban" on sleeping outside in Grants Pass but that the lower court's ruling was too broad, Reuters reports.
(More US Supreme Court stories.)

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