Simultaneous suits over Phoenix homeless camp will continue – The Arizona Republic

The city of Phoenix is caught between two separate lawsuits over a homeless encampment near downtown.
A lawsuit filed in state court in August will proceed as planned, a judge ruled Friday, despite a federal lawsuit with overlapping issues that was filed in November. While the city asked to pause the state lawsuit while the federal lawsuit played out, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Scott Blaney denied the request. 
In his denial, Blaney reasoned that the state court lawsuit is already well underway and that any assumptions about how the federal case will go are “mere speculation at this point.”
A group of downtown business owners and residents, alleging the homeless encampment has caused them irreparable harm, filed the earlier lawsuit against the city, Brown v. City of Phoenix. The encampment, located near 12th Avenue and Madison Street, is commonly called the Zone. The business owners and residents who brought the suit said they have witnessed unhoused people using drugs, littering and defecating on their properties, and that the city hasn’t done enough to fix the problem. 
The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona filed the latter lawsuit, alleging Phoenix’s cleanup sweeps of unhoused people’s belongings and certain criminal citations of people experiencing homelessness are unconstitutional. It was brought on behalf of the Fund for Empowerment, a group that advocates for the rights of unsheltered people, as well as Faith Kearns and Frank Urban, who said they have lost personal belongings during sweeps, such as cell phones, medications and birth certificates.
The city filed a motion to postpone the state court lawsuit brought by business owners and residents until the federal court decides whether the city’s cleanups of unhoused people’s belongings are unconstitutional. The city argued the postponement would help avoid conflicting court orders. The city’s motion said the cases are “two sides of the same coin” and represent “polarized views” of how the city should police the unhoused population.
“Depending on the scope of whatever orders come out, the city genuinely may not be able to comply with both orders,” said Aaron Arnson, an attorney representing Phoenix, at a Dec. 8 court hearing. 
Ilan Wurman argued that his business owner and resident clients are not requesting that the city conduct cleaning sweeps, criminally cite unhoused people or destroy their property, core issues in the federal lawsuit. He said postponing the case would be costly and unfair to his clients. 
“We filed first. We filed months ago. We’re on judge number three,” he said at the Dec. 8 hearing. “We’ve already had a hearing. We’ve done everything right. And we’ve waited, and we’ve waited, and we’ve waited some more.”
Two judges previously recused themselves from the case without disclosing a reason to the court.
The Goldwater Institute, a libertarian think tank, joined the business owners and residents in objecting to the city’s motion to postpone the case. It argued that if there is a conflict between the two cases, the federal court should pause its case, not the state court.
“The longstanding principle behind doctrines of abstention and comity are that state courts typically get the first bite at the legal apple,” the institute said in an amicus brief.
Blaney, the judge presiding over the case, seemed to agree. 
“While this Court has great respect for the honorable federal court, this Court is reluctant to defer to a federal court’s prospective ruling on a related issue — even temporarily — before carrying out its constitutional duty to the parties and to the residents of Arizona,” Blaney wrote in his denial.
Phoenix will have back-to-back hearings on the lawsuits next week. A hearing in the ACLU lawsuit is scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 14, while the next hearing for Brown v. City of Phoenix is scheduled for Thursday, Dec. 15.
Juliette Rihl covers housing insecurity and homelessness for The Arizona Republic. She can be reached at jrihl@arizonarepublic.com or on Twitter @julietterihl.
Coverage of housing insecurity on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Arizona Community Foundation.

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