The US Supreme Court Considers Legalizing Sports Gambling

If you’re one of the rising number of Americans who support legal sports gambling, the latest case before the Supreme Court should make you stand up and pay attention. In 1993, only 44 percent of US citizens approved of sports betting. Now, however, a 55 percent majority fueling the way to change professional sports betting laws in the coming year.

Update: it has already happened

This dramatic shift in pubic opinion has recently come to a head in New Jersey, where outgoing governor Chris Christie is leading efforts to challenge a decades-old law that prohibits states from allowing individuals to wager on sports events. Known as the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), this 1992 statute essentially outlaws sports gambling at the national level although it contains specific exceptions for the state of Nevada and a several others that had pro-sports betting legislation on the books prior to the Act’s passage.

The Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments in Christie v. NCAA on Monday, December 4. In asking the Court to overturn lower court rulings and legalize sports betting in New Jersey, this case will concurrently investigate the constitutionality of PASPA within the context of the current political climate.

The case comes to the Supreme Court after the passage of a 2012 state bill that authorized sports gambling in New Jersey. This bill passed with widespread voter support. The NCAA and all four major professional sports leagues in the United States (the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB) quickly sued to put a stop to the bill, but this effort was thwarted in the New Jersey court system. After the failure of a subsequent effort to repeal laws prohibiting sports gambling in New Jersey casinos and racetracks, the matter ultimately earned a place on the docket of the most powerful court in the land.

To borrow a phrase from the gaming world, the stakes in this battle are high. If the Supreme Court ultimately strikes down the PASPA, a reputable California research firm estimates that as many as 32 states would begin to offer sports betting within their boarders over the next five years. The undisputed facts seem to back these findings securely. At present, 20 different states have lent their support to an amicus brief that supports New Jersey in its pro-sport gambling effort, and 12 different states have already introduced legislation to legalize sports betting in the event that New Jersey wins its appeal.

The amicus brief in support of New Jersey argues that federal tradition does not support actions of national government that prevents individual states from passing a law “that neither violates the Constitution nor addresses any matter pre-empted by federal law.” In other words, if Congress truly wants to prohibit sports gambling, why not pass a law that does so directly? Instead, Congress has simply infringed upon the rights of states, stopping them from changing their own gambling laws and effectively commandeering state resources to impose a policy with which many of these states disagree.

Early evidence indicates that the Supreme Court may just overturn key provisions of the PASPA. During the course of oral arguments, Justice Anthony Kennedy decried the fact that “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.” Justice Stephen Breyer echoed this sentiment, suggesting that Congress was “telling states what to do” without proper authority and jurisdiction.

Input from the world of professional and college sports has been mixed. Officially, the NCAA and all major US professional sports leagues have released statements claiming that New Jersey’s gambling expansion would damage the integrity of their games. In private, however, the vast majority of sports industry leaders have shown at least some degree of openness to the legalization of sports betting.

As the major sports continue to recalibrate their thinking on this subject, they cite the fact that a fully regulated sports gambling industry would make it easier for them to detect suspicious bet surging that might indicate rigged competition. Plus, in crass commercial terms, they know that sports betting is great for business. Evidence shows that sports fans are simply far more likely to watch the big game if they have a few dollars at stake.

Despite the early comments from justices Kennedy and Breyer, the final outcome of this extraordinary case remains exceedingly difficult to predict. Justices Elena Kagan and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, for example, have given some indication that they view Congress’ passage and continued support of the PASPA as entirely permissible.

In any event, those looking for a definitive answer to the question of legalized sports gambling in the US will simply have to wait. A final decision from the Supreme Court on this issue isn’t expected until at least June of 2018.


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