SAN DIEGO — San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan has joined efforts to get the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on a federal court case out of Oregon that could reshape rules surrounding how cities can address homeless encampments.
On Thursday, Stephan’s office submitted a brief as an “amicus curiae,” or “friend of the court,” to support the case City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Gloria Johnson, et al. that is angling to be heard by the highest court in the land.
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.
The decision built on a 2018 precedent set by the Ninth Circuit court in the case of Martin v. City of Boise, which held that the “cruel and unusual punishment” clause of the Eighth Amendment narrowly prevented governments from imposing criminal penalties on homeless individuals “for sitting, sleeping, or lying outside on public property” if there is no accessible alternative.
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.
In the city’s petition for appeal, they posed the question: “Does the enforcement of generally applicable laws regulating camping on public property constitute ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ prohibited by the Eighth Amendment?”
In the brief filed, the District Attorney’s office argued that local governments “allowing encampments is cruel and creates more suffering than the alternative,” citing health and safety risks for the unhoused residents that occupy them and the general public.
” … while being mindful of the health and safety of both the homeless population and that of the greater community, many issues still must be resolved by (the Supreme Court) to clarify what other efforts may be made within the bounds of the law,” the District Attorney’s petition read. “The questions raised by this case are of paramount importance to local governments … and warrant this Court’s thoughtful attention.”
The brief also brought up the possibility for legal challenges under the Ninth Circuit court rulings in Martin and Grants Pass to enforcement of the city of San Diego’s unsafe camping ordinance. However, the city contends that they are in compliance with what both decisions stipulate.
FOX 5 reached out to the San Diego District Attorney’s Office for comment but did not immediately hear back.
The full brief from Stephan can be found below:
This comes several days after San Diego city officials also voted 6-2 to join the case during a closed session meeting. The city will be joining Seattle and other metro areas within the Ninth Circuit court jurisdiction in their petition, which has yet to be officially filed.
“What we’re seeing is a disturbing trend of courts really tying the hands of cities and consequently, limiting our ability to welcome people into the shelter system,” San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria told FOX 5 on Monday after the vote. “These kinds of rulings probably only make sense in a courtroom, but not necessarily in real life.”
San Diego was the latest in a swath of public officials and local groups within the Ninth Circuit court’s jurisdiction that have sought to participate in the case — many of whom filed briefs with the Supreme Court over the last several days.
Gov. Gavin Newsom was among those who submitted petitions on Friday, a little over a week after announcing his intention to intervene in court battles over homeless encampments during an interview with Politico on Sept. 12.
“I’ve had it,” he said during the interview. “We’re going to intervene, and I hope this goes to the Supreme Court, and that’s a hell of a statement for a progressive democrat … to say.”
He added that federal judges have “gone too far” in interpreting Martin v. Boise and earlier Grants Pass rulings.
However, advocates for homeless individuals argue that these decisions are 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.
“Mayors and other local officials are under pressure to do something, anything,” wrote Jeff Olivet, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. ” … many communities are understandably struggling with how to address homelessness. But blaming, criminalizing, and moving people from streets to jails does not solve homelessness or fix the systems that created it.”
” … criminalization does not reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness. It breaks connections people had made with providers trying to help and exacerbates homelessness and the conditions that lead to it—such as health problems and racial disparities,” Olivet added.
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 best case scenario is that we get some certainty of what expectations of cities are and hopefully, those expectations are set by the localities themselves,” Gloria continued. “What we are hoping for is a ruling that would say that cities can continue their enforcement efforts, obviously doing those in the most compassionate ways — the ways that follow best practices and formed by the experiences of those who have lived on our streets.”
While it is unclear if the Supreme Court would be interested in the issues at hand, it’s useful to note that the City of Boise also attempted to appeal to the high court, but the justices at the time declined to take it up.
The Supreme Court’s term begins on the first Monday in October. It is unclear when the justices will make a determination on whether they will hear the case.