U.S. Supreme Court May Finally Weigh in on Martin v. Boise

A Ninth Circuit ruling that banned many cities from enforcing anti-camping laws could finally be taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS), potentially removing a major hurdle for local governments in addressing homelessness.

Martin v. Boise

In 2009, the City of Boise, Idaho cited several unhoused individuals for sleeping on public property, which was illegal under Boise law. One of those individuals sued the city, and the case – Robert Martin, Lawrence Lee Smith, Robert Anderson, Janet F. Bell, Pamela S. Hawkes, and Basil E. Humphrey v. City of Boise (Martin v. Boise for short) – made its way to California’s Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Ninth Circuit ruled against the city, determining that local governments could not enforce anti-camping ordinances if there is not adequate shelter available for the homeless. The definition of adequate shelter was somewhat dubious and many cities felt they had no choice but to allow people to sleep on the streets.

Supreme Court Balks

Boise petitioned SCOTUS to take up the case in 2019. To the surprise of many, the High Court refused, allowing the lower court’s ruling to stand.

SCOTUS did not explain its decision to reject the case. It’s possible that the justices considered the issue moot, since Boise had already repealed part of the ordinance that was at issue. Since then, one more conservative justice, Amy Coney Barrett, has joined the Court, giving conservatives a 6-3 majority.

Oregon City Revives Boise Debate

Five years after Boise, the High Court is once again being asked to weigh in on the constitutionality of anti-camping laws. This month, the City of Grants Pass, Oregon petitioned SCOTUS to hear a case that it lost in the Ninth Circuit. 

Grants Pass wrote the following in its Petition for A Writ Of Certiorari:

"The question presented is:

Does the enforcement of generally applicable laws regulating camping on public property constitute 'cruel and unusual punishment' prohibited by the Eighth Amendment?"

If – and how – the Supreme Court decides to answer that question could have massive implications for municipalities across the Western United States.

The Boise decision put a “straitjacket” on West Coast governments, argued the dissenting judges in the Grants Pass case. Homelessness has exploded in the 14 years since that court case. In Los Angeles alone, 75,000 people remain unhoused on any given night. Sprawling encampments have contributed to numerous public health and safety issues in cities.

Can Grants Pass Help San Francisco?

One of the cities still dealing with the aftermath of Boise is San Francisco, where a court recently barred the city from clearing homeless encampments. Officials are now urging the Ninth Circuit to vacate the order.

Hundreds of people, including Mayor London Breed, attended a rally outside the federal courthouse Wednesday.  

"The fact that the courts have crippled our ability to do our job to help get people into shelter is criminal. If we have a place for someone to go. They need to go. There has to be accountability," Breed said

Gov. Gavin Newsom also took a shot at the courts for tying localities’ hands.

"In California, we are cutting red tape and making unprecedented investments to address homelessness, but with each hard-fought step forward, the courts are creating costly delays that slow progress,” he said. “I urge the courts to empower local communities to address street encampments quickly and comprehensively."

If the Ninth Circuit doesn’t do it, SCOTUS might.