The U.S. Supreme Court agreed on Friday to reexamine Johnson v. Grants Pass, a case that reaffirmed the rights of homeless people to sleep outside.
The decision to take up the case follows lobbying by Gov. Gavin Newsom, the San Francisco City Attorney's Office and other local advocates who had urged the court to clarify the tangle of laws governing how cities can respond to homeless encampments.
The case could have big implications for San Francisco, which is struggling to manage unsheltered homelessness alongside a federal injunction that restricts encampment sweeps. On Thursday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the injunction, which was requested by the nonprofit advocacy group Coalition on Homelessness as part of an ongoing federal lawsuit.
“The Supreme Court can now correct course and end the costly delays from lawsuits that have plagued our efforts to clear encampments and deliver services to those in need,” said Newsom in a statement.
In the Grants Pass case, a separate Ninth Circuit panel ruled that the Oregon city could not enforce local ordinances that prohibit homeless people “from using a blanket, pillow, or cardboard box for protection from the elements.” The decision applies across nine western states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.
The ruling, like a 2018 decision from the Ninth Circuit in a case from Boise, Idaho, found that punishing people for sleeping on the streets when no alternative shelter is available amounts to “cruel and unusual punishment” in violation of the Constitution.
Elected officials urged the justices to take up the case because they say the rulings complicate their efforts to clear tent encampments, which have long existed in West Coast cities but have more recently become more common across the U.S. The federal count of homeless people reached 580,000 last year, driven by a lack of affordable housing, a pandemic that economically wrecked households and a lack of access to mental health and addiction treatment.
"The Supreme Court’s decision to take up the case will have obvious impacts on San Francisco’s ongoing litigation, and we are evaluating next steps,” said City Attorney David Chiu in a statement.
Anna-Rose Mathieson, a partner at Complex Appellate Litigation Group and a former clerk for the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, noted that the Supreme Court reverses decisions in about 70% of cases it agrees to review.
"And, here, the fact the court was willing to take the case at all suggests that at least some justices have concerns about the Ninth Circuit’s decision finding that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on 'cruel and unusual punishment' prohibits cities from restricting public camping," Mathieson said.
Homeless people and their advocates argue the sweeps are cruel and a waste of taxpayer money. They say the answer is more housing, not crackdowns.
"The U.S. Constitution does not allow cities to punish people for having an involuntary status, including the status of being involuntarily homeless," said Ed Johnson, director of litigation at the Oregon Law Center and lead counsel for the respondents. "We look forward to presenting our case to the Court.”
Cities from Los Angeles to New York have stepped up efforts to clear encampments, records reviewed by the Associated Press show, as public pressure grew to address what some residents say are dangerous and unsanitary living conditions. But despite tens of millions of dollars spent in recent years, there appears to be little reduction in the number of tents propped up on sidewalks, in parks and by freeway off-ramps.
In San Francisco, the injunction restricting encampment sweeps has become a flashpoint for tensions over the city's response to homelessness. In August 2023, city officials rallied outside the Ninth Circuit and argued that judges have unfairly tied their hands in addressing encampments.
"In this case, the Supreme Court will address for the first time what limits the Constitution places on how cities and states can address these issues," Mathieson said.