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Justices turn aside major case on homelessness law

This morning the Supreme Court issued more orders from last week’s private conference. After adding five new cases to their docket on Friday, including three cases involving disputes over access to President Donald Trump’s financial records, the justices did not grant any new cases today, nor did they seek the views of the federal government.

Perhaps the biggest news on today’s order list was the justices’ announcement that they would not weigh in on the constitutionality of a Boise, Idaho, law that bans camping and sleeping in public spaces. A group of homeless and formerly homeless Boise residents challenged the law, arguing that it violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment when it is used as the basis for criminal penalties against homeless people who are sleeping outside because they cannot find space in a shelter. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit agreed with the challengers, holding that the city cannot impose criminal penalties on homeless residents “for lacking the means to live out the universal and unavoidable consequences of being human.”

The city appealed to the Supreme Court, telling the justices that the “consequences of the 9th Circuit’s erroneous decision have already been—and will continue to be—far-reaching and catastrophic. The creation of a de facto constitutional right,” the city argued, “to live on sidewalks and in parks will cripple the ability of more than 1,600 municipalities in the Ninth Circuit to maintain the health and safety of their communities.” The city’s appeal was supported by 20 “friend of the court” briefs, some from cities and states with large homeless populations. The city of Los Angeles, for example, complained that the “broad rationale” of the 9th Circuit’s ruling could have an impact well beyond “a homeless person’s need to sleep outdoors.” But today the justices denied Boise’s appeal, leaving the 9th Circuit’s decision invalidating the law in place.

The justices also denied review in Smyth v. Conservation Commission of Falmouth, a case that arose after the Massachusetts town of Falmouth rejected Janice Smyth’s application to build a home on a lot that she owned there. When Smyth’s parents, from whom she inherited the land, bought the property in 1975, there were no restrictions on their ability to develop the lot. But the town later enacted regulations that limited development on lots near wetlands, like Smyth’s property. As a result, by the time Smyth was ready to begin construction, the only part of her property that she could use was much too small to build the home that she had planned. The town’s denial of Smyth’s permit application meant that the only possible uses of her land were as a playground, park or neighbor’s yard, reducing the value of the lot from $700,000 to $60,000.

Smyth went to court, arguing that the restrictions amount to a “regulatory taking” – that is, even though she still owns the land, the government’s regulations so restrict her ability to develop it that the Constitution entitles her to compensation. But today the justices declined to review her case.

The justices’ next conference is scheduled for January 10, 2020.

This post was originally published at Howe on the Court.

Recommended Citation: Amy Howe, Justices turn aside major case on homelessness law, SCOTUSblog (Dec. 16, 2019, 10:50 AM),