Christie's gambling fight heads to the Supreme Court

Christie's gambling fight heads to the Supreme Court
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Outgoing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) may finally get what he’s long fought for — legalized sports betting in the state.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments Monday in Christie’s case challenging the constitutionality of a 1992 federal law that prohibits every state, except Nevada, from licensing or legalizing single-game sports gambling. 

The case stems from a lawsuit the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and professional sports leagues brought against New Jersey after it passed a law in 2012 following a state ballot initiative to legalize and create a licensing scheme for sports betting. The lower courts struck down the law as a violation of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), but New Jersey was undeterred.

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Two years later the state passed a law repealing its prohibition on sports wagering, but only at racetracks and casinos in the state, which are already highly regulated. The law did not license or regulate the activity.

Christie argues PASPA can stop states from passing laws that legalize sports betting, but it can’t require states to continue prohibiting it.

“Never before has congressional power been construed to allow the federal government to dictate whether or to what extent a State may repeal, lift, or otherwise modulate its own state-law prohibitions on private conduct,” Christie’s attorneys argued in court briefs.    

“And never before has federal law been enforced to command a state to give effect to a state law that the state has chosen to repeal.” 

The NCAA, along with the National Basketball Association, the National Football League, the National Hockey League and the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball are once again fighting back.  

The NCAA and the professional sports leagues say the repeal is just a creative way to legalize sports gambling. They refute the claim that PASPA is forcing the state to maintain its prohibition.

“PASPA does not require states to enact, maintain, consider, enforce or do anything,” attorneys for the state argue in briefs.

“Instead, the statute sets forth only what states (and private parties) may not do — i.e., take action inconsistent with the federal policy against state sponsored sports-gambling schemes.”

The Trump administration has sided with the sports leagues and is urging the court to uphold the federal law, which Congress enacted when states started proposing sports betting as a way to fix budgetary woes.   

Solicitor General Noel Francisco said in court papers that Congress feared state-sanctioned sports gambling would promote betting by minors and threaten the integrity of sports. 

While PASPA prevents some states from adopting their favored policies, he said the law does not impermissibly commandeer state’s regulatory authority, as New Jersey claims. 

“PASPA does not require or coerce the states to lift a finger — they are not required to pass laws, to take title to anything, to conduct background checks, to expend any funds, or to in any way enforce federal law,” Francisco wrote.  

“Instead, a State need only refrain from licensing or authorizing by law sports-gambling schemes.”

The American Gaming Association, meanwhile, is pushing the court to strike down PASPA. The group estimates a legal sports betting industry could generate up to $26.6 billion in total economic impact a year through gross domestic product increases, taxes and jobs.

Court watchers say the court could side with Christie by overturning PASPA entirely, clearing the way for sports gambling in states across the country. A more likely outcome, though, is that the justices will issue a narrower ruling and affirm New Jersey’s repeals.

“Rather than clearing way for other states to move forward, the real impact would be that it would create a big loophole in PASPA and really invite Congress to step in and resolve it,” said James Kilsby, managing director of GamblingCompliance, an industry research service.