Breaking down Supreme Court decisions on Jan. 6 cases, homeless camps and agency power (2024)

With just one day left in its term, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a trio of major decisions Friday. The justices upheld a law making it a crime for unhoused people to camp in public areas like parks, sidewalks and plazas, narrowed the scope of a law being used to prosecute Jan. 6 rioters and weakened the rule-making powers of regulatory agencies. John Yang reports.

Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    With just one day left in its term, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a trio of major decisions today.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The justices upheld a law making it a crime for unhoused people to camp in public areas like parks, sidewalks and plazas. They narrowed the scope of a law being used to prosecute the January 6 rioters and weakened the rulemaking powers of regulatory agencies.

    "PBS News Weekend" anchor John Yang reports on the Supreme Court for us. He's here now to break it all down.

    John, good to see you.

  • John Yang:

    Good to see you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So let's start with the case of Joseph Fischer. This is a man charged with seven counts after storming the Capitol on January 6. What aspects of his case did the justices consider here?

  • John Yang:

    Well, Fischer challenged just one charge that was against him. That was obstructing an official proceeding.

    Because of the law, the way the law is written, his argument was it had to involve an actual document, a piece of evidence. Now, the justices agree that it didn't cover storming the Capitol or confronting police officers inside the Capitol.

    Chief Justice John Roberts said in the majority opinion that the way the Justice Department is using the law criminalizes a broad swathe of prosaic conduct, exposing activists and lobbyists to decades in prison. It was a 6-3 decision, but not ideological.

    Ketanji Brown Jackson was in the majority and Amy Coney Barrett wrote the dissent. She said the majority did textual backflips to reach their conclusion.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    John, as you know, there are some 1,300 other January 6 defendants. How might this ruling impact those cases?

  • John Yang:

    It appears to be quite limited.

    This is former Justice Department official Mary McCord:

  • Mary McCord, Former Justice Department Official:

    That's because, first of all, only 346 of the more than 1,400 defendants charged for the riot on and the attack on the U.S. Capitol were even charged with that offense. Of those, the vast majority are charged with another felony. So whether they went to trial or whether they pleaded guilty, they could be resentenced to term, similar term of incarceration based on that other felony.

    There's a very few number of people who either were not convicted or found guilty of another felony or it was only a misdemeanor. And that — those are the people who might get a resentencing.

  • John Yang:

    Now, it's also one of the charges against former President Donald Trump. But some are suggesting that may not have to be dropped because his case does involve documents, those fake — fake elector ballots.

  • Amna Nawaz:


    So there's also a separate decision I want to ask you about in which the conservative majority upheld an ordinance in a small Oregon city that basically criminalized behaviors associated with homelessness, things like sleeping in public parks, et cetera. So what were the key factors that they were considering in that case?

  • John Yang:

    Well, the challengers said that these laws criminalized — made it — made — or — sorry — they were punishing people for being homeless, for being unhoused. And you can't punish someone for their status. You can only punish them for their conduct.

    The six conservative justices said that's exactly what these laws do. They punish conduct, not status. Now the liberal justices disagreed very strongly.

    Listen to the opening lines of Sonia Sotomayor's dissent, which she read from the bench this morning. She said: "Sleeping is a biological necessity, not a crime. For some people, sleeping outside is their only option. For people with no access to shelter, that punishes them for being homeless. That is unconscionable and unconstitutional."

  • Amna Nawaz:

    John, what kind of reaction has that decision been getting from city leaders, mayors on the front lines of this issue, and also public housing advocates?

  • John Yang:

    Well, a lot of the city and state leaders who've been struggling with this problem welcomed it.

    Here is Seattle city attorney Ann Davison.

  • Ann Davison, Seattle, Washington, City Attorney:

    This decision will help with safety. For us, we had a nexus with gun violence and encampments. And so that was shown through our police data. Now local decision-makers who understand the unique circ*mstances in their communities are able to make laws that are responsive to what their needs are, instead of following something that might be better for a town that's thousands of miles away.

  • John Yang:

    On the other hand, housing advocates say this is just going to make things worse.

    Here's former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan. He now runs the Enterprise Community Partners, which is a nonprofit trying to expand housing stock.

    Shaun Donovan, Former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary: Criminalizing homelessness doesn't work. In fact, it makes it worse. In part, it's a game of cruel Whac-A-Mole. If folks don't have a place to sleep, no home, no shelter, just moving them or putting them in jail, those tents, those encampments are going to turn up somewhere else.

    But even worse, by arresting people, by fining them, you actually make it harder for them to find jobs, to find housing, the things that end homelessness.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    John, meanwhile, in another decision, the conservative majority overturned a decades-old precedent. That decision effectively limits government agencies' authority to write rules. It's kind of dry stuff here.

    But help us understand the massive potential impact here and also why this has been on some conservative wish list for quite some time.

  • John Yang:

    It's something called the Chevron deference. It's called that because it first arose in a 1984 case dealing with Chevron.

    It says that if a law is ambiguous the courts have to defer to the agencies' interpretation of that law. Now, conservatives have hated this. They have been gunning for this for a long time. They call it the government always wins doctrine. And today the chief justice, John Roberts, struck it down.

    He said that the law requires judges to independently evaluate agency actions and that justices or judges shouldn't defer to the agencies simply because the law is ambiguous. Now, this is, as you say, a big deal. This has the most widely cited precedent in U.S. jurisprudence, the underpinning of about 17,000 federal regulations dealing with the environment, with drugs, with food safety, everything.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Huge potential impact there.

    John Yang, after a busy week at the Supreme Court, thank you. So good to see you.

  • John Yang:

    Thank you.

  • Breaking down Supreme Court decisions on Jan. 6 cases, homeless camps and agency power (2024)


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