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Supreme Court Paves the Way for States to Legalize Sports Betting

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

Anti-sports betting laws have often seemed inconsistent. Why can I wager on a game in Las Vegas, but not in Los Angeles? Betting on baseball is cool on one side of Lake Tahoe, but not the other?

A federal gambling statute provided a loophole for Nevada that it denied other states, and some of those states, mainly New Jersey, weren't too happy about that disparate treatment. And the Supreme Court agreed, striking down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act and paving the way for states to decide whether they want to legalize sports betting.

Anti-Ante Law

The Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (PASPA) made it illegal for a state or local governmental entity to "sponsor, operate, advertise, promote, license, or authorize by law or compact ... a lottery, sweepstakes, or other betting, gambling, or wagering scheme based ... on one or more competitive games in which amateur or professional athletes participate." The statute doesn't make sports gambling itself a federal crime, but does allow federal prosecutors and professional and amateur sports organizations to bring civil actions to enjoin violations.

New Jersey argued that the Constitution does not allow "authorizing a federal court injunction mandating that a State reinstate prohibitions it has chosen to repeal," and if it wanted to roll back its own restrictions on sports gambling, the federal government couldn't intervene.

Anticommandeering Doctrine

And the Supreme Court agreed with the Garden State. In a 6-3 ruling the Court held that if a state completely or partially repeals old laws banning sports gambling, it "authorize[s]" those schemes under PASPA, and legal doctrine separating state and federal authority meant the feds couldn't stop them.

Under the "anticommandeering doctrine," Congress "may not simply 'commandeer
the legislative process of the States by directly compelling them to enact and enforce a federal regulatory program.'" The Court ruled that PASPA's anti-authorization provision "unequivocally dictates what a state legislature may and may not do." Therefore, the decision to repeal sports betting bans is left to the states.

Ante Up!

Does this mean you can wager on tonight's Warriors game against the Rockets? Not so fast. The ruling only removes the federal bar to sports gambling, and not every state will choose to legalize it. And even those that do will need to craft, enact, and enforce their own regulatory schemes. (That is, if the federal government doesn't try to pass one law that will rule them all.) So expect there to be a lot of lobbying from casinos, sports leagues, and other vested interests before any bets can be placed.

One entity that might not be too pleased with the Supreme Court's ruling? The Nevada Department of Tourism.

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