- The Washington Times - Monday, December 4, 2017

The Supreme Court on Monday appeared skeptical of a 1992 federal law outlawing state-sponsored sports betting in nearly all 50 states, suggesting Congress violated states’ rights in the highly anticipated case that could quickly unleash bookmaking of professional sports in New Jersey and as many as 30 other states in the next five years.

New Jersey argued that the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which Congress enacted to preserve the wholesome nature of sporting events, encroached on the state’s power under the 10th Amendment to institute a policy that was passed by its state legislature and directly approved by voters in a 2014 referendum.

The state has repealed its own ban on sports betting but has been repeatedly rebuffed by courts citing the federal law in its bid to allow betting on sporting events, even if only at the state’s racetracks and casinos.

“It leaves in place a state law that the state does not want, so the citizens of the State of New Jersey are bound to obey a law that the state doesn’t want but that the federal government compels the state to have,” said Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. “That seems commandeering.”

The National Collegiate Athletic Association, joined by the NFL, NHL, NBA, the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball and the federal government, defended the federal act.

“The problem that Congress was confronting was state-sponsored and -sanctioned sports gambling schemes. It didn’t care if I bet with my buddy on the Redskins game or we had an office pool. It wasn’t going after all sports gambling,” said Jeffrey Wall, deputy solicitor general for the Justice Department.

But Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Stephen G. Breyer seemed skeptical of the federal government’s argument.

“It’s a very odd way to phrase something. It’s illegal if it’s pursuant to state law,” Chief Justice Roberts said.

“In other words, if the state law says you can do it, that’s the only situation in which it’s illegal. If the state law doesn’t say anything about it, well, feel free, you can do it.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, though, questioned why the federal government couldn’t regulate commercial activity by a state.

Roughly 20 states are backing New Jersey, and Michelle Minton, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said they want to have the choice whether to tap into the black market that already exists.

“It’s a job creator, a tax creator,” said Ms. Minton. “They will have an opportunity to regulate this market that already exists.”

Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who will leave office in January, sat in the front row of the courtroom during arguments at the high court and said afterward that if justices side with the state, the bets could be “taken in New Jersey within two weeks of a decision by the court.”

If the justices strike down the law, 32 states would likely offer sports betting within five years, according to a report by a California research firm.

Ms. Minton said Europe has successfully legalized sports betting, allowing bookies to work with leagues to help control corruption. But in America, “the bookies cannot even go to the cops if something’s going on.”

Geoff Freeman, CEO of the American Gaming Association, said the federal law has enabled an illegal sports betting market and is preventing states from realizing large tax revenue.

His organization said Americans wager roughly $150 billion every year on sports.

“I heard a court that was suspicious of the federal government’s overreach,” Mr. Freeman said of the justices. “We are one giant step closer to a sports betting market.”

New Jersey state Sen. Ray Lesniak is predicting that the Supreme Court will hand the state a victory in its yearslong efforts to legalize sports betting.

Mr. Lesniak said after listening to Monday’s arguments in Washington that he thinks the court will rule 7-2 or 6-3 in New Jersey’s favor. The Democrat sponsored the bill that legalized sports betting in the state, prompting the lawsuit from the four major U.S. sports leagues and the NCAA that ultimately made its way to the Supreme Court.

Mr. Lesniak said the likelihood of a ruling in the state’s favor is “not quite a slam-dunk, but it’s about Tiger Woods and a 5-foot putt.”

He says sports gambling will be a “lifeblood” for the struggling casinos in Atlantic City and for New Jersey’s racetracks.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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