Justices take up camping ban case



The Supreme Court agreed on Friday to decide whether an Oregon city can enforce its ban on public camping against homeless people. The announcement came as part of a short list of orders released from the justices’ private conference earlier in the day adding five new cases to the court’s merits docket.

The court’s ruling in City of Grants Pass v. Johnson could affect how other cities address their own epidemics of homelessness. San Francisco, which spent over $672 million during the last fiscal year to provide shelter and housing to people experiencing homelessness, told the justices in a “friend of the court” brief that its inability to enforce its own laws “has made it more difficult to provide services” to those people.

The question is one that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, based in San Francisco, has grappled with repeatedly in recent years. In Martin v. City of Boise, the court of appeals held that punishing homeless people for public camping would violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment if they did not have access to shelter elsewhere. The court of appeals reasoned that, just as the city could not punish someone for their status – being homeless – it also could not punish them for conduct “that is an unavoidable consequence of being homeless.”

A few weeks after the 9th Circuit’s decision in Martin, three individuals who are involuntarily homeless went to federal court in Oregon to challenge a ban on public camping in Grants Pass, a southern Oregon city with just under 40,000 people.

The district court agreed with them and barred the city from enforcing its ban during the day without providing notice 24 hours in advance, as well as at night.

A divided panel of the 9th Circuit largely upheld that decision. The city then asked the full 9th Circuit to rehear the case, but a deeply splintered court declined to do so. In one dissenting opinion, Senior Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain criticized the decision as contrary to the original meaning of the Eighth Amendment and “seizing policymaking authority that our federal system of government leaves to the democratic process.”

The city came to the Supreme Court in August, asking the justices to weigh in. The 9th Circuit’s rulings, the city wrote, have created “a judicial roadblock preventing a comprehensive response to the growth of public encampments in the West.” Without the ability to act, the city wrote, such encampments have led to “crime, fires, the reemergence of medieval diseases, environmental harm, and record levels of drug overdoses and deaths on public streets.”

The challengers stressed that the lower court’s decision simply follows the Supreme Court’s decision holding that the Eighth Amendment bars the city from punishing people for their involuntary status. “Being involuntarily homeless is such a status, and when shelter is unavailable, it is a status that means you have nowhere to exist but outside.”

The challengers suggested that the 9th Circuit’s rulings do not actually stop cities from addressing homelessness. Instead, they told the justices, the real problem is that many cities in the western United States simply didn’t want to spend the money to provide housing and services for homeless people. But with the dramatic surge in housing costs in recent years, homelessness has also increased, they explained, leading to an “intense public backlash, and it is easier to blame the courts than to take responsibility for finding a solution.”  

The justices will also take up a labor relations case filed by coffee giant Starbucks, whose response to widespread efforts by its workers to unionize have drawn allegations that the company has engaged in unfair labor practices. In Starbucks v. McKinney, the justices will consider what test courts should use to evaluate requests from the National Labor Relations Board for injunctions under Section 10(j) of the National Labor Relations Act, which gives federal district courts the authority to grant preliminary injunctive relief as the court “deems just and proper”: the traditional (and stringent) four-factor test, or a more lenient standard.

The question comes to the court in a case that began after Starbucks fired seven employees who worked at a Memphis store that was attempting to unionize. After the union filed an action with the NLRB, accusing it of violating federal labor laws, the board went to federal court, seeking (among other things) to have the fired workers reinstated while the proceedings before the NLRB continued.

The district court granted the temporary relief that the NLRB sought, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit upheld that ruling.

Starbucks came to the Supreme Court, asking the justices to weigh in. Four courts of appeals would have required the NLRB to meet the high bar set by the traditional standard for preliminary relief – which is, the company says, an “extraordinary remedy that may only be awarded upon a clear showing that the plaintiff is entitled to such relief.” But the 6th Circuit and four other courts of appeals, the company contends, apply a less rigorous standard that simply requires the NLRB to show “‘reasonable cause’ to believe that employers engaged in unfair labor practices and that an injunction protects the Board’s remedial power.”

Section 3 of the Federal Arbitration Act provides that when a court finds that a dispute should be arbitrated, it “shall,” if requested by one of the parties, put the trial in the case on hold until the arbitration has finished. The question that the court agreed on Friday to decide in Smith v. Spirrizzi is whether that provision requires district courts to put the trial on hold, or whether district courts instead have the option to dismiss the case if all of the claims in it are subject to arbitration.

The court granted review in two other cases on Friday:

  • Williams v. Washington, in which the justices will consider whether a plaintiff must pursue all available administrative remedies through the state to be eligible to bring a federal civil rights claim; and
  • Department of State v. Munoz, in which they will consider whether the denial of a visa to the non-citizen spouse of a U.S. citizen infringes on a constitutionally protected interest of the citizen and, if so, whether the government properly justified that decision.

The cases that the court added to its docket on Friday will likely be argued in late April, with a decision to follow by summer.

This article was originally published at Howe on the Court.


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