Civil and Human Rights

RELEASE: Justices grapple with line-drawing but resist overturning important precedent in Eighth Amendment homelessness case

WASHINGTON, DC – Following oral argument at the Supreme Court this morning in City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson, a case in which the Court is considering whether city ordinances that punish the status of being homeless impose “cruel and unusual punishment” in violation of the Eighth Amendment, Constitutional Accountability Center Deputy Chief Counsel Brian Frazelle issued the following reaction:

At the core of this case is a simple idea: when a person lacks shelter and therefore has nowhere else to sleep but in public, penalizing them for doing so is the same thing as punishing them for being homeless. And the Supreme Court’s precedent recognizes that the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause does not allow the government to punish people for an involuntary status.

In defense of its ordinances, however, the City of Grants Pass has urged the Supreme Court to reverse or narrow that precedent, claiming that the Eighth Amendment bans only particular methods of painful physical punishment. That broad argument seemed to make little headway among most Justices during today’s argument. Indeed, while Justices grappled with difficult line-drawing questions, struggling with how courts can determine when a person truly lacks access to shelter, most appeared sympathetic to the central principle that cities may not punish a person for sleeping outside when that person has no alternative.

In this case, the courts below found that the plaintiffs were involuntarily homeless. And it is undisputed that in Grants Pass there are hundreds more homeless individuals than shelter beds available. The record also shows that the challenged ordinances were designed to force the city’s homeless residents to leave the city.

The Supreme Court should uphold the injunction preventing the city from enforcing these ordinances. As we showed in our amicus brief, the Eighth Amendment protects against disproportionate punishment that exceeds a person’s culpability, and any punishment is excessive when a person literally cannot avoid doing what the government has criminalized.

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Resources:

Case page in City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson: https://www.theusconstitution.org/litigation/city-of-grants-pass-oregon-v-johnson/

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Constitutional Accountability Center is a nonpartisan think tank and public interest law firm dedicated to fulfilling the progressive promise of the Constitution’s text, history, and values. Visit CAC’s website at www.theusconstitution.org.

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