Supreme Court strikes down law banning sports betting

The Supreme Court has struck down a federal law that banned sports betting in almost every state, a precedent-shattering decision that opens the door to legalized sports gambling nationwide.

New Jersey has been fighting since 2010 to make sports wagering legal at racetracks and casinos in the state, but had repeatedly been blocked by the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) of 1992.

The court ruled 6-3 that PASPA’s provisions prohibiting states from authorizing and licensing a sports gambling scheme violate the anti-commandeering rule.

In delivering the opinion of the court, Justice Samuel Alito said legalization of sports gambling requires an important policy choice, but the choice is not the court’s to make.

“Congress can regulate sports gambling directly, but if it elects not to do so, each State is free to act on its own. Our job is to interpret the law Congress has enacted and decide whether it is consistent with the Constitution. PASPA is not,” he said.

“PASPA ‘regulates state governments’ regulation’ of their citizens. The Constitution gives Congress no such power.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued in a dissenting opinion, which Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined, that there is no reason for the court to take a “wrecking ball” to PASPA in its entirety.

She said two of PASPA’s provisions ban states or their agencies, as well as private parties, from “sponsoring, operating, advertising, or promoting sports-gambling schemes” without commandeering the states to do anything.

“When a statute reveals a constitutional flaw, the court ordinarily engages in a salvage rather than demolition operation,” she said.

“It limits the solution to severing any problematic portions while leaving the remainder intact.”

Justice Stephen Breyer, who concurred in part with the majority and dissented in part, agreed with Ginsburg.

He said the law’s first provision unconstitutionally forces states to prohibit sports betting but its second provision, which makes sports gaming schemes a state authorizes unlawful under federal law, is constitutional.   

“Congress might have seen subsection (2) as a backup, called into play if subsection (1)’s requirements, directed to the States, turned out to be unconstitutional — which, of course, is just what has happened,” he wrote. “Neither of these objectives is unreasonable.”

The court ruling’s Monday is a win for former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who brought the lawsuit.

“New Jersey citizens wanted sports gambling and the federal Gov’t had no right to tell them no. The Supreme Court agrees with us today. I am proud to have fought for the rights of the people of NJ,” he tweeted.

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) was quick to hail the court’s ruling as a win for New Jersey and the rest of the country.

“PASPA was clearly unconstitutional, and the ban on sports betting has now rightfully been rejected by the court,” he said. “I have long believed that New Jersey should have the opportunity to proceed with sports betting.”

Pallone called on Congress to move legislation he offered last year to legalize sports betting and online gambling if consumer protections are in place.

He said his bill, known as the GAME Act, would provide states with the legal framework to adopt sports betting at their discretion.

The NCAA, NBA, NHL and NFL had brought the case challenging New Jersey’s attempts to legalize sports betting.

Though initially opposed to a legalized wagering scheme, the NBA eased its position in January and formally asked for new laws that would legalize sports gambling nationwide, The New York Times reported.

Though not a plaintiff in the case, a PGA Tour official told USA Today last month it too would welcome regulated and legalized sports betting.

In a statement, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) said he’s thrilled the court finally sided with New Jersey.

“New Jersey has long been the lead advocate in fighting this inherently unequal law, and today’s ruling will finally allow for authorized facilities in New Jersey to take the same bets that are legal in other states in our country,” he said.

“Today’s victory would not have been possible without the incredible bipartisan effort from so many in our state, particularly former Governor Christie and former state Senator [Raymond] Lesniak.”

In anticipation of the ruling, 16 state legislatures across the country have begun considering measures to legalize sports betting.

Lawmakers in Pennsylvania and Connecticut have already passed sports gaming laws.

In other states, legislators introduced placeholder bills that are likely to move now that the high court has given the green light. Eilers & Krejcik, a gaming industry analysis firm, estimated earlier this year that 11 states are likely to move quickly to adopt legal sports gaming: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and West  Virginia.

The National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), the Council of State Governments and the National League of Cities signed on to a joint amicus brief in favor of legalizing sports gambling.

“This landmark ruling provides states another tool with which they can continue to craft smart, tailored policies during a time of congressional gridlock in Washington,” NCSL said in a statement after the court ruled.

Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) called PASPA a sweetheart deal that cut out New Jersey and gave four states a monopoly on the entertainment and tax revenue generated from legalized sports betting.  

“Today the Supreme Court struck down the entire federal law, rightfully giving states the freedom to act on their own,” he said.  

Lance commended Murphy and Christie for successfully litigating the issue. He said he’s sure the state legislature will act quickly to implement sports betting, which Garden State voters decided overwhelmingly to permit in a voter referendum. 

Reid Wilson and Scott Wong contributed to this report. 

Updated at 12:31 p.m.

Tags Frank Pallone Jr. Leonard Lance
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