The US Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Monday in a case that could open up sports betting beyond the desert confines of Las Vegas.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, on behalf of his state, is challenging a 1992 federal prohibition on sports betting known as the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PAPSA).
In Christie v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, lawyers for the Republican governor claim that the law, which prohibits the establishment of betting on competitive games between professional and amateur athletes, unconstitutionally overrides state powers.
Joining New Jersey in the case is the state’s Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, which hopes sports wagering could buoy racetrack finances. Eighteen other states have filed briefs with the court in support of New Jersey.
A victory for Christie before the high court would render the federal law against sports betting essentially meaningless, opening the door for several states to set up bookmaking shops.
PAPSA’s prohibition extends across the country, with exemptions for a handful of states, including Nevada, Delaware, Montana, and Oregon. Nevada is the only state that allows individuals to place bets on team sporting events.
New Jersey had racetrack gambling before PAPSA was passed. The law gave the state one year to set up a sports betting scheme in its casinos if it wanted to be exempted. The state opted not to do so.
But New Jersey changed its mind two decades later. In 2012, the state legislature passed a law to legalize sports gambling in defiance of PAPSA. The National Collegiate Athletics Association and several professional sports leagues promptly sued the state, in lawsuits they eventually won.
The Third Circuit Court of Appeals rejected New Jersey’s argument that the law violated the Tenth Amendment, on “powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution.”
In 2014, the New Jersey state legislature tweaked its strategy. It passed a new law that didn’t affirmatively legalize sports gambling, but merely repealed the state’s current prohibition against it that had been locked in place by PAPSA.
As with its first attempt, the state was defeated in the courts. The Third Circuit noted that the same dynamics were at play even if the state had “artfully couched” its attempt to legalize sports betting as a repealer bill.
Despite the multiple rejections at the appellate level, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
In briefings filed to the court, lawyers representing New Jersey argued that a federal statute prohibiting a state from repealing laws it deems harmful “undermines the responsiveness of state governments to their electorates, blurs the lines of accountability between the citizens and their state and federal governments, and disrupts the balance between those governments that protects individual liberty.”
During Monday’s oral arguments, at least one judge appeared sympathetic to the state’s case. Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative jurist who is often considered a swing vote, said PAPSA seems to violate the Tenth Amendment’s prohibition against federal “commandeering,” the Guardian reported.
The outlet further reported that Justices Elena Kagen and Sonia Sotomayor, meanwhile, appeared to support the NCAA and the law’s constitutionality.
Also siding with the NCAA is the Trump administration. Principal Deputy Solicitor General Jeffrey B. Wall said PAPSA was a case of preemption, not commandeering.
“Congress may not require States to enact or maintain federally prescribed regulations,” Wall said in filings with the court. “But it may–and routinely does–prohibit States from adopting laws that conflict with federal policy.”
A ruling on the case is expected this next summer.