WASHINGTON — In a case being closely watched by states interested in allowing betting on sports, the Supreme Court indicated a willingness Monday to side with New Jersey’s effort to permit sports gambling.
The justices heard arguments in a case where New Jersey is challenging a federal law that bars gambling on football, basketball, baseball and other sports in most states. If the justices strike down the law, 32 states would likely offer sports betting within five years, according to a report by a California research firm.
Courts, citing the federal law, have blocked New Jersey’s repeated attempts to allow sports betting at its racetracks and casinos. Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who will leave office in January, sat in the front row of the courtroom during arguments at the high court Monday and said afterward that if justices side with the state, bets could be “taken in New Jersey within two weeks of a decision by the court.”
More than a dozen states are supporting New Jersey, which argues that Congress exceeded its authority when it passed the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, barring states from authorizing sports betting. New Jersey says the Constitution allows Congress to pass laws barring wagering on sports, but Congress can’t require states to keep sports gambling prohibitions in place.
Anthony Kennedy was among the justices who implied during arguments that he will side with New Jersey. Kennedy said that as a result of the federal law, “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.”
Like Kennedy, Justice Stephen Breyer suggested that Congress was impermissibly “telling states what to do.”
All four major U.S. professional sports leagues, the NCAA and the federal government are urging the court to keep the law. In court, the NBA, NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball have argued that New Jersey’s gambling expansion would hurt the integrity of their games. Outside court, however, leaders of all but the NFL have shown varying degrees of openness to legalized sports gambling.
The stakes are high. The American Gaming Association estimates that Americans illegally wager about $150 billion on sports each year.
Not all the justices indicated they were on New Jersey’s side, though. Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor seemed willing to say that Congress’ action was permissible and side with Paul Clement, who was arguing on behalf of the sports leagues.
“All the time the federal government takes some kind of action, passes a law, and then says to the states: ‘You know what? We’ve got this. You can’t do anything,’” Kagan told Theodore B. Olson, who was arguing on behalf of New Jersey.
The 1992 law at issue in the case bars state-authorized sports gambling with exceptions for Nevada, Montana, Oregon and Delaware, states that had approved some form of sports wagering before the law took effect. Nevada is the only state where a person can wager on the results of a single game, though the law doesn’t cover wagering between friends. The law doesn’t cover animal races, such as horse racing, which many states already allow.
In 2012, with voters’ support, New Jersey lawmakers authorized sports betting, directly challenging the 1992 federal law. The four major professional sports leagues and the NCAA sued, and the state lost in court. In 2014, New Jersey tried a different tactic by repealing laws prohibiting sports gambling at casinos and racetracks. It lost again in court.
A decision from the Supreme Court is expected by the end of June.