SAN DIEGO — The City of San Diego has officially joined a federal case out of Oregon that is looking to get the U.S. Supreme Court to review rules that govern how cities can address homeless encampments after filing a petition with the court on Monday.
The city, which voted 6-2 to participate during a closed City Council session last week, is one of a growing list of other metro areas, public officials and local groups to ask the highest court in the land to take up the case, City of Grants Pass v. Gloria Johnson, et al.
The lawsuit, which was brought by three unhoused residents in the small Oregon town of Grants Pass, sought to overturn city ordinances that restricted camping and sleeping in public through fines and other regulations.
Last year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the homeless plaintiffs, saying in its decision that it was a violation of the Eighth Amendment to punish people for sleeping in public when there is nowhere else for them to go.
However, Grants Pass is attempting to get another opinion, filing an appeal last month to get the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.
San Diego joined the case as one of twenty “amicus curiae,” which are people or groups who can submit briefs intending to influence a court’s decision in a case that are not one of the listed parties, listed in a sweeping petition out of Seattle, WA.
The amicus brief argues that the precedent set by the Ninth Circuit in the 2018 case of Martin v. Boise, which the earlier decisions in the Grants Pass case were built off of, is a “violation of the separation of powers.”
In Martin, the appeals court held that the “cruel and unusual punishment” clause of the Eighth Amendment narrowly prevents governments from imposing criminal penalties on homeless individuals “for sitting, sleeping, or lying outside on public property” if there is no accessible alternative.
Homeless advocates have argued that this decision is an important backstop to prevent policies that criminalize life-sustaining activities without another choice, as they often lead to additional barriers that make it more difficult to exit homelessness.
However, Seattle’s brief argued that strategies for helping their unhoused residents should be a decision made by local officials, not the courts.
“Local elected representatives … have the arduous task of balancing strong human emotions, nuanced data, competing community interests, complex underlying causes of the problem, and limited budgets,” the brief read. “This is a quintessentially democratic endeavor.”
“At its center, this case is not really about the Eighth Amendment. It is about what role the Constitution and federal judges should play in solving the complex social issues that emerge in modern life,” it continued.
The brief also criticized the “shelter availability test” that Martin implemented as a condition to enforce certain regulations on encampments. The document argued that the requirement places “limits around the police power” and financial burdens on local governments to provide enough beds for unhoused individuals to adequately meet demand.
Seattle’s amicus brief did not directly address the City of San Diego or its unsafe camping ordinance. They were, however, mentioned by San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan in a separate brief in the case filed by her office on Thursday.
The full brief from Seattle that San Diego signed onto can be found below.
Other groups that have also already filed briefs in the case include: the California State Association of Counties, Arizona state representatives, the Brentwood Community Council and conservative think tank, the Goldwater Institute.
The Supreme Court’s term begins on the first Monday in October. It is unclear if the justices will be interested in taking the case up, or when they might make a determination on whether to hear the case.