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June 28, 2024

Supreme Court Decides City of Grants Pass v. Johnson

On June 28, 2024, the Supreme Court of the United States decided City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson, No. 23-175, holding that the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause of the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution does not prohibit laws preventing overnight camping on public property from being enforced against individuals experiencing homelessness. 

The petitioner, the City of Grants Pass, Oregon, has a municipal ordinance that prohibits certain specific conduct, including camping on public property and overnight parking in city parks. Grants Pass Municipal Code §§ 5.61.030, 6.46.090(A)-(B). Under the ordinance, first-time offenders are subject to a limited fine. Repeat offenders are subject to an order preventing camping in a public space, including a maximum 30-day jail sentence for violations of the order. Ore. Rev. Stat. §§ 164.245, 161.615(3). 

Homeless residents of the City filed a putative class action against the City alleging that the ordinance violated the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause. The plaintiffs relied on Ninth Circuit precedent holding that the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause prevented municipalities from enforcing such ordinances where the “involuntary” homeless population exceeds the municipalities’ “practically available shelter beds.” The plaintiffs also argued that the ordinance unlawfully criminalized the individuals’ “status,” invoking Supreme Court precedent. The district court enjoined the City from enforcing the ordinance against the plaintiffs, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed the injunction in relevant part.

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that enforcement of generally applicable laws regulating camping on public property does not constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. 

The Court held that the fines and short jail sentences imposed by the ordinance were not cruel because they were not designed to create “terror, pain, or disgrace,” and were not unusual given the prevalence of such statutes across the country. The Court rejected the argument that the ordinance punished plaintiffs for their “status” as homeless, noting that the ordinance applied to anyone who camped in parks, regardless of whether they were homeless. 

The Court also rejected the argument that plaintiffs’ homelessness should be treated as a “status” because it was “involuntary.” The Court concluded that homelessness is a complex problem with multiple causes, commenting that permitting federal judges to dictate what are and are not appropriate policies to address the problem would improperly interfere with public policy decisions. 

Justice Gorsuch delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Thomas, Alito, Kavanaugh, and Barrett joined. Justice Thomas filed a concurring opinion. Justice Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion that was joined by Justices Kagan and Jackson.

Download Opinion of the Court

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