Recognizing cities’ vexing uncertainties about regulating the homeless, the California Supreme Court voted Thursday to review a Santa Ana ordinance that prohibits camping on public property.
Four justices voted to review a February decision by the 4th District Court of Appeal that struck down Santa Ana’s homeless ordinance as unconstitutional. The appellate court wrote that “punishment for poverty--which the camping ordinance surely is--is cruel and unusual punishment.”
Santa Ana City Atty. Edward J. Cooper said: “We’re pleased the (state) Supreme Court has decided to take this case. The appellate decision set new precedent for all cities in the state of California. It essentially abdicated their power to legislate what happens on public property.”
If the court had rejected Santa Ana’s petition, Cooper said, the city would have taken its case to the U.S. Supreme Court and may still do so if it loses this round.
The state Supreme Court’s interest in the case worries some homeless advocates, who were pleased with the lower court ruling. Four conservatives on the high court voted to review it: Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas and Justices Armand Arabian, Marvin R. Baxter and Ronald M. George.
“I am wary,” said Harry Simon, staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Orange County. “The people who voted to grant review are not the most liberal members of the court, and it is among the most conservative Supreme Courts in the country.”
Supporters and opponents of the city’s ordinance said the Supreme Court’s decision probably will affect similar regulations throughout the state.
“It is going to be significant throughout the state. . . ,” said E. Thomas Dunn Jr., deputy district attorney in Orange County. “We have to have some authoritative statement from the high court to tell us what the legal perimeters are and how we should be dealing with these problems.”
Orange County Deputy Public Defender Kevin Phillips, however, said that the Supreme Court’s decision may have limited ramifications, because Santa Ana’s ordinance is much broader than similar laws passed by other cities.
Santa Ana’s ordinance, passed in 1992, was aimed at clearing homeless people off city property, particularly the Civic Center Plaza. Homeless advocates lost an attempt to invalidate it in Orange County Superior Court before prevailing in the appellate court.
Santa Ana, in the meantime, passed a second ordinance to clear the homeless from the Civic Center area only. The Legal Aid Society, which challenged the more sweeping ordinance, is challenging this one too. The matter will be heard in Superior Court in August.
The ordinance now before the state Supreme Court prohibits people from using a blanket or sleeping bag to sleep on any public property, thereby forcing the homeless to “leave Santa Ana,” Phillips said.
The case has stirred conservative legal groups across the country, who say the appellate decision sided with the homeless at the expense of taxpaying residents and hampered cities’ abilities to control public property.
“There’s something inherently wrong with the court construing constitutional rights so broadly that they trump everybody else’s rights,” said John Schmidt, an attorney with Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation.
“If the California Supreme Court issues a favorable decision for Santa Ana, it may help all cities basically provide safe public parks for the citizens and taxpayers. The obligation of government is to provide social order so people can pursue their individual goals. Government does not have the duty to provide property to people who are homeless.”
The League of California Cities also wrote to the court in support of Santa Ana.
But others in the state--including council members from Watsonville, Santa Cruz, Pasadena and Laguna Beach--criticized the ordinance and urged the Supreme Court in recent months not to take up the issue.
“It seemed to me that the ordinance that was originally passed was so general in nature that it really sort of penalized people for being homeless and asked them to move on when there really was no place to move on to,” said Laguna Beach Councilwoman Lida Lenney, who, like the others, wrote to the court independently and not on behalf of the City Council.
“The position of my letter was that we need to work together to solve the homeless problem in Orange County and passing laws like these is not really the right approach. I don’t think making people move on is a solution.”
Orange County has about 975 permanent shelter beds and an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 homeless people, said Tim Shaw, executive director of the Orange County Homeless Issues Task Force.
“If it’s upheld that these kind of anti-camping ordinances are constitutional and lawful, what’s to stop every city in Orange County from having one?” he said. “And then where do people go? They’ve got to go somewhere. They can’t just float in the air.”