Rep. Bush Leads Bicameral SCOTUS Amicus Brief to Oppose Criminalization of Unhoused People 

PC: Justin Sullivan via marketplace.org

By Bryan Miller

WASHINGTON, DC – House Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) “led 18 of her Democratic colleagues in filing an amicus brief to the Supreme Court ahead of the case of Johnson v. City of Grants Pass, in opposition to the threat of criminalizing unhoused people across the country,” according to a statement released by her office this week.

The statement notes, “Congresswoman Bush and her colleagues support the argument that the enforcement of public camping laws against involuntarily unhoused people violates the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment.” 

The brief also cites “our sordid history with housing disinvestment that soared in the 1980s and continues to worsen today, as housing costs continue to set record highs,” maintaining “the disproportionate negative impact the ruling may have on unhoused people who are Black and brown, youth, disabled, elderly, and/or LGBTQ+.” 

Democratic lawmakers wrote in the brief, “Punishing poverty traps people in cycles of debt, unemployment, and hopelessness, increasing the likelihood someone will become chronically homeless, which makes the problem worse for everyone and therefore serves no legitimate penological purpose.”

The brief signers added, “While the members of Congress signing here agree that the political branches have at least partially failed homeless Americans by turning away from their historical role in ensuring broad access to affordable housing, this Court has never permitted a local government to inflict pain on its own innocent residents for the deliberate purpose of running them off and making them someone else’s burden.” 

“For the good of the people our Constitution protects, and for the health of the interstate relationships it governs, we undersigned lawmakers implore this Court to affirm the ruling of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals,” lawmakers wrote.

The April 3 press release, states Bush, “emphasizes that with a dramatic increase in homelessness in recent decades, government action is needed to invest meaningfully in housing aid and to ameliorate widespread homelessness” because of “structural changes in the American economy — including the elimination of social safety net programs, stripping institutional resources for special needs service providers, and a decline in affordable housing for low-income people.”

According to the press release, “The city of Grants Pass, Oregon, has a population of approximately 38,000 residents, and between 50 and 600 of its residents are without shelter on any given night. Grants Pass has no publicly accessible emergency housing options, so some of these vulnerable people have no choice but to sleep on public streets or in parks.”

The statement adds, “Rather than helping its residents, Grants Pass codified a system of anti-sleeping, anti-camping, and park exclusion ordinances specifically designed to inflict escalating punishments that would be ‘uncomfortable enough’ to force anyone without a home to leave the city entirely.”

The lawmakers cite the “landmark case called Martin v. Boise” in 2018 in which the courts decided “the Eighth Amendment prohibits criminal penalties for sitting, sleeping, or lying outside on public property against homeless individuals who cannot obtain shelter,” adding when the case was appealed to the Supreme Court in 2019 the case was denied.

Unhoused supporters note “the Eighth Amendment prohibits criminal penalties for sitting, sleeping, or lying outside on public property against homeless individuals who cannot obtain shelter…as a class action under the Martin doctrine because while Grants Pass couched its ordinances in terms of ‘civil penalties,’ they were criminal sanctions that resulted in carceral punishments on top of the underlying fines.”

According to Bush’s news release, “after a global pandemic and an unprecedented spike in housing costs made unsheltered homelessness so much more visible” the Supreme Court has decided to accept “Grants Pass’ invitation to decide whether the Eighth Amendment provides any limitations on the criminal punishment of innocent human behavior.”

Oral arguments begin April 22 and “a ruling is expected this summer.”

According to the statement issued by Bush, the amicus brief was signed by “Senators Ed Markey (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Elizabeth Warren (D–MA) and Representatives Gwen Moore (WI-04), Rashida Tlaib (MI-12), Shri Thanedar (MI-13), Barbara Lee (CA-12), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14), Nydia Velázquez (NY-07), André Carson (IN-07), Ayanna Pressley (MA-07), Jamaal Bowman (NY-16), Pramila Jayapal (WA-07), Sylvia Garcia (TX-29), Summer Lee (PA-12), Delia Ramirez (IL-03), Linda Sanchez (CA-38), and Ro Khanna (CA-17)”

The “brief is endorsed by the National Homelessness Law Center, National Low Income Housing Coalition, National Coalition for the Homeless, National Housing Law Project, National Health Care for the Homeless Council, Southern Poverty Law Center, Corporation for Supportive Housing, Funders Together to End Homelessness, True Colors United, National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, and National Alliance to End Homelessness.”

According to the press release issued by Rep. Bush, the lawmaker “has been a fierce advocate for affordable housing and the unhoused community,” noting that “out of the $13.7 million Congresswoman Bush secured in this year’s Community Project Funding, approximately $4.5 million went to various housing and housing-related projects across the district.”

Bush, her office claims, in December 2023 “led a member-level briefing educating members of Congress about how the federal government can decriminalize homelessness,” adding in the same year she “joined her fellow Co-Chairs to re-establish the Congressional Caucus on Homelessness.”

The caucus, her statement notes, is “dedicated to educating members of Congress and their staff on the complex issues faced by unhoused persons” and “ reintroduced the Unhoused Bill of Rights, a resolution which declares unalienable rights for unhoused persons and provides solutions for the federal government to permanently end the crisis by 2027.”

About The Author

Bryan Miller is a fourth year political science - public service major at UC Davis. He has a desire to pursue law in the future and has a large interest in the justice system and constitutional law. In his free time Bryan likes to spend time outdoors fishing and hiking.

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