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Johnson v. City of Grants Pass – Overturned 

Johnson v. City of Grants Pass – Overturned  


Early this year, SDAO joined the League of Oregon Cities, City of Portland, and other local governments throughout the state in supporting an amicus brief before the US Supreme Court to overturn the Johnson v. City of Grants Pass case. This is the case that has dramatically hampered the ability of local governments to regulate camping in public spaces.  


On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit decision with a 6-3 majority. With this ruling, the Ninth Circuit’s 2019 Martin v. Boise decision was implicitly overruled as well. They noted that “[n]o other circuit court has followed Martin’s lead with respect to camping laws.” The majority cited statements from the amicus brief that the Martin decision has “[l]imited the tools available to local governments for tackling [what is a] complex and difficult human issue” and that the number of unsheltered people have “increased dramatically in the Ninth Circuit since Martin.”  (Opinion, at 9-10.)  The majority also strongly questioned the continued viability of the Supreme Court’s 1962 decision in Robinson v. California—but did not overrule that decision on Friday. 


In the majority opinion, Justice Gorsuch explained the many unfortunate problems that unsheltered people face, along with challenges the homelessness crisis has caused local governments.  One challenge is that unsheltered people often refuse shelter; the majority opinion cited statistics from the amicus brief showing that 70 percent of the City of Portland’s offers of shelter beds were declined between April 2022 and January 2024.  (Opinion, at 5.)  The majority then described the “many and complex” reasons that unsheltered people may refuse shelter—including safety concerns and rules regarding curfews, drug use, or religious practices.   


The majority opinion then explained that Grants Pass—like many other local governments—has laws restricting public camping.  Those laws include escalating penalties; ultimately, an unsheltered person could be charged with criminal trespass and face a maximum of 30 days in jail and a $1,250 fine.  But, the majority opinion stated, those escalating penalties are neither “cruel” nor “unusual” under the Eighth Amendment.  (Opinion, at 16-17.)   The majority again noted that many local governments prohibit public camping, so the Grants Pass laws are not “unusual”; and the laws are not “cruel” within the understanding of the Framers of the U.S. Constitution (who were concerned about the use of medieval punishments).   


With respect to Robinson, the majority noted that it held that persons cannot be punished merely for the “status” of being an addict.  But “[p]ublic camping ordinances like those before us are nothing like the law at issue in Robinson.”  (Opinion, at 20.)  The majority noted that other people, including “a backpacker on vacation passing through town” and “a student who abandons his dorm room to camp out” would be subject to the laws too.  Thus, “Robinson is not implicated.”  (Opinion, at 21.) 


The majority opinion then discussed interpretation issues the Martin decision has caused local governments, including the need to determine why an unsheltered person turned down an offer of shelter and whether those reasons were “sufficiently weighty” to make the person “involuntarily” homeless.  (Opinion, at 26.)  The majority, citing the amicus brief, noted that local governments have found Martin’s “ill-defined involuntariness test” to be “unworkable” and the cause of a “threat of federal litigation[.]”  (Opinion, at 27.)  “By extending Robinson beyond the narrow class of status crimes, the Ninth Circuit has created a right that has proven ‘impossible’ for judges to delineate except ‘by fiat.’”  (Opinion, at 29.)  In reversing the Ninth Circuit, the majority held that the Eighth Amendment “does not authorize federal judges to wrest those rights and responsibilities from the American people and in their place dictate this Nation’s homelessness policy.”  (Opinion, at 35.) 


The majority opinion relied on many statistics and arguments cited in the amicus brief, and adopts many of the legal arguments raised in the briefing.  In the letter to the Ninth Circuit accompanying the decision (attached), the Supreme Court noted that a judgment or mandate from the Court will not be issued for “at least” 32 days and that the judgment will be stayed further if a petition for rehearing is timely filed. 


Justice Thomas’ concurring opinion mostly focuses on Robinson.  He believes that decision “was wrongly decided” and “we should dispose of it once and for all.”  The dissent, in turn, cites a number of specific examples of the many unfortunate problems that unsheltered people face, and relies on Robinson for the argument that homelessness is a “status” that should be protected under the Eighth Amendment.  (Dissent, at 15 (“Put another way, the Ordinances single out for punishment the activities that define the status of being homeless.”).)  Those arguments, however, did not persuade a majority of the Court. 


We will continue to keep you updated on the developments of this decision.