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Supreme Court hears homeless plaintiffs’ challenge to camping law

The U.S. Supreme Court Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite, file

Supreme Court hears homeless plaintiffs’ challenge to camping law

The justices on Monday heard oral arguments on whether the city of Grants Pass, Ore., can ban homeless people from camping on public property. The City of Grants Pass in Oregon appealed to the Supreme Court after an appeals court ruling. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had found that a city law punishing homeless people for camping on public property violated the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution against cruel and unusual punishment.

How did the justices react to the arguments? Justices Sonya Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ketanji Brown Jackson grilled Grants Pass’s attorney, Theane Evangelis, on whether the city was effectively penalizing people for being homeless through creative means. Evangelis insisted the law only penalized individuals for camping on public property without reference to homelessness.

Justice Clarence Thomas asked Kelsi Corkran, the attorney representing the homeless individuals, whether the statute criminalized homelessness or prohibited certain conduct. Justice Samuel Alito also questioned Corkran about whether homelessness was a permanent status.

How did this case come before the Supreme Court? Plaintiffs alleged that a Grants Pass city law repeatedly punished them for being involuntarily homeless. The appeals court ruled the city’s punishments did violate the Eighth Amendment in light of the Supreme Court’s 1962 decision on Robinson v. California. The court ruled in Robinson that laws could not punish a person for a status such as addiction to a substance. Lawyers for the homeless plaintiffs argued in a brief that the appeals court made the right decision.

What does the city have to say? The city argued in its brief to the court that prohibiting homeless people from camping on public property does not violate the Eighth Amendment. The law applies to everyone and penalizes only a person’s actions rather than his or her status, the city said. The city also argued that the Eighth Amendment only prohibits inflicting excessive punishment, and that the amendment does not specify what kind of conduct the city could make illegal and punish.

Dig deeper: Listen to Lillian Hamman’s report on The World and Everything in It podcast about efforts in Austin, Texas, to clear the city’s homeless encampments.

Josh Schumacher

Josh is a breaking news reporter for WORLD. He’s a graduate of World Journalism Institute and Patrick Henry College.

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