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U.S. Supreme Court To Hear Case About Homeless Encampments

United States Supreme Court

The United States Supreme Court has agreed to take a case involving the ability of a city to ban homeless encampments.


This issue has been the subject of media scrutiny in Portland, where a camp was recently cleared by police. Seventy tents were cleared from under the Casco Bay Bridge earlier this month. Just a day later another encampment on Douglass Street was also cleared.


The Supreme Court has decided to grant a writ of certiorari to hear the case Grants Pass v. Johnson centering on a city in Oregon. Grants Pass has a population of 40,000. The court’s decision could affect how other cities address their homelessness issues, including Portland here in Maine.


The legal issues relate to a district court’s decision by homeless plaintiffs who argued that the enforcement violated their rights against cruel and unusual punishment in the federal constitution’s Eighth Amendment. The district court that barred the city from enforcing its ban during the day without providing notice 24 hours in advance. This was largely upheld by the appellate court (a panel of judges in the Ninth Circuit) but a decision to have it heard by all judges (called en banc) was denied.


The Supreme Court has granted a hearing on the case from the city, which appealed. That does not bode well for the original homeless plaintiffs (now defending the appeal), since the majority of decisions are overturned at the highest court. Recent cases have also made clear that the current court is not very receptive to any claims related to the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishment clause. The U.S. Supreme Court is also not very friendly to cases from the Ninth Circuit either and it is the appellate court with the highest reversal rate.


Before reaching its decision on Friday January 12, 2024, to hear the case, the docket had 25 ‘friend of the court’ briefs from cities across Oregon, California, and other states, as well as law enforcement, district attorneys, and businesses. There did not appear to many, if any, from those representing the unhoused.


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