Las Vegas loses lock on legalized sports betting

 In Politics

Sports betting. | Getty

The ruling will open the floodgates to an industry long the domain of barroom bookies and Las Vegas gambling parlors. | Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Supreme Court on Monday cleared the way for states to legalize sports betting, striking down a 1992 federal law that limited such gambling and likely touching off a nationwide battle to dominate what is sure to be a multi-billion-dollar industry.

The justices ruled in favor of New Jersey, which had long argued that the federal law unconstitutionally intruded on state affairs, telling state legislators what they can and — more importantly — can’t do with their time.

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“The legalization of sports gambling requires an important policy choice, but the choice is not ours to make,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority. “Congress can regulate sports gambling directly, but if it elects not to do so, each State is free to act on its own.”

The ruling will open the floodgates to an industry long the domain of barroom bookies and Las Vegas gambling parlors. In New Jersey and Delaware, the first bets could be placed within days or weeks, and Mississippi could follow within a month or two. In total, about 20 states have either enacted laws or introduced bill to legalize sports betting, all an anticipation of this moment.

“Today’s decision will ultimately transform that way we watch and consume sports,” said Daniel Wallach, a sports and gaming attorney at the Florida law firm Becker & Poliakoff who has followed the case closely. “This is more than just about sports betting and federalism. It will be a game changer for how sports is marketed, consumed and watched.”

In its 6-3 ruling, the court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, which prohibits most states from legalizing and regulating sports betting.

Then-Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), a former professional basketball player, spearheaded passage of the legislation. He contended that widespread sports betting would have negative ramifications for both professional and amateur sports.

However, because sports betting was already legal in Nevada and, to a very limited extent, in a few other states, Congress struck a compromise that allowed a few jurisdictions continue taking bets while all others were barred from doing so.

Alito’s majority opinion said a provision in the law, known as PASPA, violates a legal doctrine preventing the federal government from “commandeering” state or local officials.

“That provision unequivocally dictates what a state legislature may and may not do,” Alito wrote. “State legislatures are put under the direct control of Congress. It is as if federal officers were installed in state legislative chambers and were armed with the authority to stop legislators from voting on any offending proposals. A more direct affront to state sovereignty is not easy to imagine.”

Alito said the federal government is free to regulate organized sports betting, and perhaps to ban it outright, but cannot due so by imposing its will on state officials.

“Congress can regulate sports gambling directly, but if it elects not to do so, each State is free to act on its own,” he wrote.

All of Alito’s Republican-appointed colleagues joined in the majority decision, as did Democratic appointee Elena Kagan.

Three justices dissented from aspects of the decision, arguing that the court should not have struck down the entire law but should have allowed some of its provisions to stand.

Justice Stephen Breyer said he agreed with his colleagues that the provision limiting state laws was unconstitutional, but he would have left in place another provision which prohibited private individuals and businesses from participating in unauthorized sports gaming.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented. In an opinion written by Ginsburg, they did not make clear whether they agreed with the majority’s view that the law unconstitutionally usurps state authority. However, Ginsburg said that provision could have been readily excised without striking down the rest of the federal legislation.

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