Like a steamroller, the fight to legalize sports betting is slowly winding its way through the U.S. federal court system, and plaintiffs in the lawsuit say that they have more than a puncher’s chance of prevailing.
The months ahead will be filled with legal wrangling and at this point no one is willing to claim anything close to victory, but the United States Department of Justice at least knows that it has a fight on its hands as it moves to keep gambling illegal in all but four states.
“The government’s argument is filled with contradictions,” says Joe Brennan, president of Interactive Media & Gaming Association, one of several plaintiffs in the suit. “For example, the government says that New Jersey is free to pass a law allowing sports betting. Except that there is a federal law precisely making any New Jersey statute unenforceable.”
The suit, which seeks to overturn the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), is being heard in federal court in New Jersey, and on Tuesday, Aug. 3 the government issued its rebuttal to the plaintiffs’ case.
The ball is now in the court of the plaintiffs, mainly iMEGA, N.J. State Senators Ray Lesniak and Stephen Sweeney, and an amalgam of N.J. horse racing groups. Nov. 1 is the target date for the plaintiffs’ response, although the court could grant an extension. After that the court could set a trial date or issue a ruling. Only one thing appears certain – whichever side loses will take the case to the Federal Court of Appeals. The next step would be the Supreme Court.
The move to legalize sports wagering in New Jersey has had many stops and starts since the idea was first proposed by Lesniak, who like many lawmakers was searching for ways to plug the state’s budget shortfall and help Atlantic City’s casinos, which were bleeding red ink as the economy soured. In 1992 New Jersey had a one-year window to allow sports wagering, but political infighting in an election year and the legislature’s decision to concentrate on other issues put the issue to bed.
Now, a generation later, Lesniak and others say the time is ripe to re-visit the issue, especially in light of the fact that no one denies that sports wagering has created an underground (and non-taxable) economy and that offshore sports betting is benefitting no one in the state.
“The reasons given by the supporters of the ban are no longer valid,” Lesniak said in 2002, “or have been proved to be not valid in the first place. The time is ripe . . . to re-state opposition to the ban, so states can decide for themselves if legalized sports betting is good for their individual state.”
The suit was filed in March 2009, and Lesniak and the other plaintiffs have had to absorb a couple of hard body blows since then, not the least of which was the election defeat of former New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine. Corzine, a Democrat, had tried to become a party to the suit, which would have given the bid a solid jolt of gravitas.
But the court ruled that he could not join in until Nov. 2, the day of the election and Corzine – who never recovered from a personal scandal involving a female union official – lost to current Gov. Chris Christie. After months of consideration, the Republican decided not to join the suit – “At best a legal long shot,” said a spokeman for Christie at the time.
But while the loss of the governor’s office was tough to swallow, more curious on the surface was the opposition to the suit by the Atlantic City casinos themselves, which have been hemorrhaging money a