Here is some of the legal news making the headlines this week:

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case challenging local Oregon ordinances that prohibit people experiencing homelessness from sleeping or camping in public spaces.

  • At issue in the case, City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson, is whether the local policies that criminalize camping and sleeping in public areas violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment.” A violation of the ordinance carries a $295 fine, and repeated violations could lead to increased fines or jail time. 
  • A group of homeless individuals filed the lawsuit challenging the policies. At oral argument, the attorney representing the petitioners argued, “The ordinances by design make it physically impossible for homeless people to live in Grants Pass without facing endless fines and jail time.” The city’s lawyer countered by saying the city “relies on camping laws to protect its public spaces,” which “prohibit specific conduct and are essential to public health and safety.”
  • The liberal justices seemed skeptical about the constitutionality of the ordinances. Justice Elena Kagan suggested that the policies criminalized homelessness, pointing out, “You don’t arrest babies who have blankets over them. You don’t arrest people who are sleeping on the beach, as I tend to do if I’ve been there a while. You only arrest people who don’t have a second home.” 
  • The conservative justices appeared divided over the constitutionality of the ordinances. Justice Brett Kavanaugh asked how the “law help[s] deal with” issues related to homelessness since once individuals are released from jail, they are still faced with homelessness “if there aren’t beds available in the jurisdiction.” Justice Clarence Thomas pushed back, asking the city’s lawyer, “Is there a crime here for being homeless?” The lawyer responded, “No.” A decision in the case is expected this summer.

The Supreme Court also granted review of a dispute over “ghost guns” for next term. 

  • Ghost guns are homemade firearms that can be made with a 3D printer or assembled from a kit. Since they are not manufactured or sold by a licensed entity, the weapons lack serial numbers, which leaves them unregistered and untraceable. In 2022, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ordered manufacturers and sellers of ghost gun kits and parts to obtain licenses, conduct background searches of buyers, and label the parts with serial numbers.
  • In the case before the Supreme Court, Garland v. VanDerStok, the Biden administration is appealing a lower court ruling that invalidated those ATF regulations. Last November, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit Court ruled that the guidelines “flout[] clear statutory text and exceed[] the legislatively-imposed limits on agency authority in the name of public policy.” The Circuit Court continued, “Because Congress has neither authorized the expansion of firearm regulation nor permitted the criminalization of previously lawful conduct, the proposed rule constitutes unlawful agency action, in direct contravention of the legislature’s will.” 
  • In the petition to the Supreme Court, U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar urged the justices to leave the regulations in place. Without the guidelines, Prelogar wrote, there “would be a flood of untraceable ghost guns into our Nation’s communities, endangering the public and thwarting law-enforcement efforts to solve violent crimes.” The justices are expected to hear oral arguments in the case this fall.

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