Supreme Court Strikes U.S. Law That Bars States From Authorizing Sports Betting

By Mark Walsh — May 15, 2018 3 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday struck down a federal law aimed at stopping the spread of sports betting, in a case being watched in higher education and among advocates who fear the effects of gambling on the nation’s youth.

The decision, which was 6-3 on striking down the entire law, is expected to open the door for legal sports betting in more states.

“Opponents contend that legalizing sports gambling will hook the young on gambling, encourage people of modest means to squander their savings and earnings, and corrupt professional and college sports,” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for the court in Murphy v. National Collegiate Athletic Association.

But Alito noted that sports betting has its supporters, who argue that “legalization will produce revenue for the states and critically weaken illegal sports betting operations, which are often run by organized crime.”

The legalization of sports gambling is a controversial subject that “requires an important policy choice, but the choice is not ours to make,” Alito said.

While Congress remains free to regulate sports betting directly, the path it took with the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act did not pass constitutional muster, the court ruled. The federal law violates a principle outlined by the high court against “commandeering,” or directing the states to pass a particular law.

In the case of sports betting, PASPA says a state or local government may not “sponsor, operate, advertise, promote, license, or authorize” sports betting, with exceptions for Nevada, which has had sports gambling since 1949, and three other states&mdashDelaware, Montana, and Oregon-—that have sports-related lotteries.

PASPA’s bar against state authorization of sports gambling violates the anti-commandeering principle because the federal statute “unequivocally dictates what a state legislature may and may not do,” Alito said.

“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,” Alito said. “A more direct affront to state sovereignty is not easy to imagine.”

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Elena Kagan, and Neil M. Gorsuch joined the opinion in full. Justice Stephen G. Breyer joined the majority on the key issue of PASPA’s constitutionality, but he sided with a dissent on a question of whether some provisions of the federal law could have been severed and upheld.

That dissent was written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and joined in full by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Ginsburg argued that the majority could have upheld provisions that left some constraints on sports gambling in place.

“The court wields an ax ... instead of using a scalpel to trim the statute,” Ginsburg wrote.

The majority disagreed that any PASPA provisions could be saved, and it struck down the entire law.

Among the concerns expressed in the case were those of the NCAA, which worries about the integrity of college sports if sports betting is allowed to expand.

“While we are still reviewing the decision to understand the overall implications to college sports, we will adjust sports wagering and championship policies to align with the direction from the court,” Donald Remy, the NCAA’s chief legal officer, said in a statement.

Stop Predatory Gambling, a Washington-based group that had filed a friend-of-the-court brief on the side of the NCAA, said the litigation “was conceived in greed by powerful gambling interests in partnership with a handful of self-serving politicians to benefit a privileged few. “

“Sports betting is especially dangerous for American kids,” the group said in a statement. “Studies show that children in those countries with legal sports gambling are repeatedly exposed to harmful messages and advertisements about sports gambling. It normalizes gambling for kids.”

The American Gaming Association, the main trade group for the casino industry, welcomed the decision. “Through smart, efficient regulation this new market will protect consumers, preserve the integrity of the games we love, empower law enforcement to fight illegal gambling, and generate new revenue for states, sporting bodies, broadcasters and many others,” the group said in a statement.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.