Supreme Court of the United States Grants Writ of Certiorari to Landmark Homeless Enforcement Case from the Ninth Circuit
On August 22, 2023, the City of Grants Pass filed a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari with the Supreme Court of the United States. Once a petition is submitted, the Court issues a response deadline for the Respondent(s); in this case Gloria Johnson. During the timeline for response, third-parties will submit “Amici Curiae” (aka amicus briefs in support of either side). This contentious case led to the submission of 22 amicus briefs before the Respondent filed her response on December 6, 2023. Notably, California Governor Gavin Newsom and San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu filed briefs supporting granting of Certiorari. The Court reviewed the petition on January 5, 2024 and granted the Writ of Certiorari on January 12, 2024.
Background: Johnson v. City of Grants Pass
In Johnson v. City of Grants Pass, Ms. Johnson challenged the constitutionality of the City’s ordinance prohibiting the use of blankets, pillows, or cardboard boxes for camping, levying a punishment of fines, exclusion orders, and criminal trespass prosecutions. The trial court found in favor of the Plaintiff (Johnson) and the City appealed the case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The court in Johnson was the same court who heard Martin v. City of Boise and the court relied heavily on the same reasoning for the two cases.
The court in Johnson ultimately ruled the City’s ordinance violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment reasoning; (1) it is unconstitutional to punish someone for sleeping somewhere in public and using rudimentary forms of protection from the elements; and (2) where cities do not have enough shelter space for unhoused people, ordinances barring camping or sleeping outside are unconstitutional. This holding was very similar to that of Martin v. City of Boise. (Johnson v. City of Grants Pass, 72 F.4th 868, 914 (9th Cir. 2023).)
The City appealed this decision made in the Ninth Circuit three-judge panel for review “en banc” (a review by 11 randomly selected judges from the Ninth Circuit), and court denied the rehearing en banc. The City subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States with their Petition for a Writ of Certiorari. (Johnson v. City of Grants Pass, 72 F.4th 868, 896 (9th Cir. 2023).)
Issues to Look Out for on Appeal
The dissenting opinion of Johnson v. City of Grants Pass, authored by Justice Collins argues (1) the court misapplied class-certification requirements and allowed the six plaintiffs to proceed as a class action; (2) the court relied too heavily on Robinson v. California (as case ruling the criminalization of addiction as unconstitutional due to cruel and unusual punishment) because the court did not consider that some conduct could be constitutionally punished because it is “involuntary”; and (3) the Plaintiffs in Johnson lacked standing because they did not support each claim brought before the court, as required under Article III of the Constitution, proving the merits of each case. (Johnson v. City of Grants Pass, 72 F.4th 868, 896 (9th Cir. 2023).)
Eighth Amendment Cruel and Unusual Punishment
The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution states, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” This amendment only applies to criminal cases and was created to require proportionality in sentencing by the judicial system. A traffic ticket could not carry a life sentence, to use a hyperbolic example. The court in Johnson concluded that punishing those who were involuntarily homeless committing unavoidable life sustaining acts with fines or jail was cruel and unusual punishment. The court also noted that “[a]ny fine [would be] excessive” for the conduct in question. (Johnson v. City of Grants Pass, 72 F.4th 868, 895 (9th Cir. 2023).)
What Comes Next?
The Supreme Court of the United States hears oral arguments for cases six days per month (usually Monday – Wednesday), except holidays that fall on those days. This case is expected to host oral arguments in late April, with a decision being passed down by Summer 2024. This case’s ruling is especially important because it will affect the enforcement of homelessness for all states, not just the Ninth Circuit states as the previous decision did. This case has been a substantial roadblock to cities throughout the Ninth Circuit and the overturning or upholding of the lower court’s decision will likely have a critical effect on cities across the nation when it is decided.
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