Black Image with a white spotlight on text that reads: Disability Law Spotlight: Grants Pass v Johnson. The National Center for Disability, Equity, and Intersectionality

Disability Law Spotlight

City of Grants Pass v. Johnson

By Kendall Murphy, JD
Legal Advocate, Project HEAL (Health, Education, Advocacy, and Law)
Kennedy Krieger Institute  

Note: highlighted words can be found in the Key Terms Section at the bottom of this page. 

In 2018, Debra Blake, who has since passed away, filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the District of Oregon, challenging an ordinance that limited the outdoor sleeping areas available to homeless people. The ordinance punished homeless people by not allowing individuals to sleep in public streets, alleyways or sidewalks. Although there was an allowance for homeless people to sleep in public parks, the ordinance prohibited individuals from using camping materials, bedding, or parked overnight vehicles for the purpose of maintaining a temporary place to live. Repeat violators would be banned from public parks for 30 days or face criminal trespass charges. The district court issued a permanent injunction which provided the relief that the anti-camping restrictions could only be enforced during the day and with a 24-hour warning from law enforcement. 

On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit cited Martin v. City of Boise, in which the court held that the Eighth Amendment does not allow criminal punishment for sitting, sleeping, or lying outside on public property for homeless people who cannot find shelter. The Ninth Circuit ruled that the Grants Pass ordinance violated the Eighth Amendment because homeless people have a right to protect themselves from the weather. In addition, the Court limited the permanent injunction to those who are involuntarily homeless and need to protect themselves from the weather when there is no shelter available. This creates a legal distinction between those who are homeless “involuntarily,” and receive the Eighth Amendment protections described above, and those who are homeless “voluntarily” and do not. 

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case on January 12, 2024. The question before the Supreme Court is whether the enforcement of laws that regulate camping on public property counts as “cruel and unusual punishment” prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. The named class representative, Gloria Johnson, is arguing that the city’s ordinances amount to criminalizing homelessness, therefore violating the Eighth Amendment. However, Grants Pass is arguing that its anti-camping ordinances do not violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on April 22, 2024.

The Supreme Court Opinion in this case is expected by mid-July at the latest. The Supreme Court will begin issuing its opinions (on all arguments heard this term) in June. The majority of opinions are completed by the end of that month, but occasionally opinions may be issued in July.

Why Does This Matter?

People with disabilities are overrepresented among people experiencing homelessness. Nearly 24% of individuals experiencing homelessness have a disability including physical, intellectual, and developmental disabilities, as well as a mental health and/or substance abuse disorderMany people with disabilities are on supplemental security income (SSI), which limits the amount of income and assets those receiving SSI can have. In addition, many shelters are inaccessible to people with disabilities because of the inability to provide reasonable accommodations. With these barriers, plus the discrimination people with disabilities experience in housing, health care, employment, and wages, people with disabilities are at a higher risk of becoming homeless.

If the Supreme Court agrees with Grants Pass, state and local governments will be able to punish people who are forced to sleep outside, even when they have no other place to go. The effects will radiate beyond Oregon– across the country. This will harm unhoused people and can worsen already existing inequalities. 

Key Terms: 

Eighth Amendment: Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause: The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits excessive bail, excess fines, and cruel and unusual punishment. The Eighth Amendment is intended to protect people who are convicted of crimes from abuse of power by the government. Because the Constitution does not define what “cruel and unusual punishment” means, the Supreme Court has heard a number of cases that have helped define these terms. However, the meaning of “cruel and unusual punishment” is subjective and is mostly left for the courts to decide. 

Complaint: a document that contains a description of the facts of a case, allegations of wrongdoing, and the relief or legal remedy that the filing party is looking for 

Ordinance: a local law that usually restricts some type of activity 

Appeal: a challenge to a previous legal ruling that is heard by a court with higher legal power than the court that originally heard the case

Permanent injunction: a court order that requires a person to do or not to do something that is issued as a final judgment in the case 

Relief: what a person asks the court for in a lawsuit

Named class representative: a person that represents a group of people in a class action lawsuit
Image of a woman with shoulder length blonde hair and black shirt smiling at the camera.

Kendall Murphy is a legal advocate at Project HEAL. Kendall received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from The Catholic University of America. She went on to receive her Juris Doctor from Elon University School of Law. While in law school, Kendall served as a Project HEAL trainee and as an intern for Disability Rights Maryland. She also worked as a research assistant at Elon Law researching law regarding students with specific learning disabilities and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Prior to law school, Kendall worked as a behavioral therapist for students with autism in the Washington, D.C. school system.