On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson. Petitioners argue that the City’s law, which fines people who are homeless from using blankets, pillows or cardboard boxes for protection from the elements while sleeping within the city limits, violates the eighth amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The City argues that the ordinances bar camping on public property by everyone.  

In a separate but related case (Martin v. City of Boise) the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit decided that the Constitution, “bars a city from prosecuting people criminally for sleeping outside on public property when those people have no home or other shelter to go to.” The Ninth Circuit extended Martin to a class wide injunction prohibiting the City of Grants Pass from enforcing its public-camping ordinance, even through civil citations. The injunction also applies to other municipalities within the Ninth Circuit’s jurisdiction: Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.  

What’s Next: The case is among the last to be argued this term, which means that it is unlikely to be decided before late June, since the Supreme Court now has a backlog of pending decisions in major cases. Three Justices raised standing and mootness questions:  

  • Robinson v California addresses the constitutionality of criminal laws targeting a certain class of people, but it did not weigh in on civil fines. It is unclear if the plaintiffs named in the case were hit with criminal sanctions, and as such may lack standing under the Robinson decision. 
  • Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson sought to dispose of the case entirely, observing that Oregon adopted a law that limits municipalities authority to target homeless individuals with ordinances like the ones in this case.