DOJ Brief Tries to Keep N.J. Sports Gaming Law Out of Bounds

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On Friday, February 1, 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a brief in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey defending the constitutionality of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (PASPA), the hotly contested federal law that prohibits sports betting in most states. New Jersey is seeking to have the court find this law unconstitutional. A win for the state would have far-reaching ramifications by eliminating the primary hurdle that individual states have in implementing legal sports betting within their borders.

PASPA prohibits any state from offering sports betting unless that state had a sports betting scheme in place between 1976 and 1990. New Jersey had a one-year period to enact sports betting, but its legislature failed to act. Delaware, Oregon and Montana have limited sports betting schemes in place, and Nevada is the only state that is authorized to offer single-game sports betting under the law.

On January 22, DOJ announced that it planned to intervene in the lawsuit brought by the four major professional sports leagues and the NCAA challenging the New Jersey state law. DOJ could have brought a case when the law was initially passed, but chose not to.

The DOJ brief raises three main constitutional issues: the anti-commandeering principles of the Tenth Amendment, Congress’s power to regulate sports wagering under the Commerce Clause and the applicability of the uniformity and equal sovereignty principles under the Commerce Clause, and due process and equal protection clause issues under the Fifth Amendment.

DOJ argues in its brief that the anti-commandeering principle applies only when a federal statute requires specific, affirmative action by a state and that since PASPA does not require New Jersey to take any action but merely to refrain from starting a betting program, the principle is inapplicable.

New Jersey replies that the anti-commandeering principle does apply because a federal law is imposing constraints on the state. PASPA’s stated purpose is “to require States to govern according to Congress’ instructions.” The Supreme Court case that established the anti-commandeering principle, New York v. United States (1992), states that “the Constitution has never been understood to confer upon Congress the ability to require the States to govern according to Congress’ instructions.”

Additionally, under the Tenth Amendment, the power of the federal government is limited. Courts have typically viewed the ability to raise revenue, such as through gambling, as one of those rights reserved to the states. New Jersey has successfully regulated gambling for decades but has been prohibited from regulating sports betting simply because it did not have a betting scheme in place before enactment of PASPA over 20 years ago.

DOJ argues that PASPA is a valid exercise of federal power under the Commerce Clause because sports gambling has an effect on interstate commerce and PASPA is a rational method of achieving regulation of it. DOJ also does not give any credence to the argument that the law violates the principle of equal sovereignty.

New Jersey argues that the principle of equal sovereignty does apply under the Commerce Clause. The plain text of the Commerce Clause does not make clear that all states must be treated uniformly, but the state believes that the case law makes it applicable.

New Jersey argues that contrary cases cited by DOJ deal with regulations that fell unevenly on the states because of circumstances that were not spread through the country, largely based on geography. However, the rationale for allowing some states to authorize sports betting and not others was the pre-existing scheme in place before PASPA and nothing else. The grandfathering clause of PASPA has served to grant a monopoly to Nevada while discriminating against all other states. This federal government-sponsored monopoly denies to the states the equal sovereignty that they are guaranteed under the Constitution.

The DOJ brief states that the arguments that PASPA violates the due process and equal protection guarantees of the Fifth Amendment are inapplicable because they protect only “persons” and not states from actions of the federal government. New Jersey argues that the discrimination between the states that PASPA has produced, by essentially granting Nevada a monopoly on single games sports betting, rises to the level of “injurious character” as to violate due process. This is likely the weakest argument that the state is making, and the court will likely rule in favor of DOJ on this point.

When PASPA was being debated in Congress, DOJ sent a letter to then Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del.), then the Judiciary Committee chairman, discussing the views of DOJ on PASPA. The letter noted that determinations of how to raise revenue are typically left to the states and since PASPA was seeking to regulate how states generate revenue, “it raises federalism issues.” DOJ chose not to address that letter in its brief.

New Jersey and the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horseman’s Association will have an opportunity to file a reply brief with the court by February 8. Oral arguments on the constitutionality of PASPA will be held on February 14.

The arguments made in the DOJ brief, for the most part, have already been made by counsel for the sports leagues. However, it remains to be seen if the court will give the arguments more weight because they were made by the U.S. government.

If the court accepts any of the arguments made by New Jersey that PASPA is unconstitutional, then New Jersey will prevail. It remains to be seen how the court will rule, but the constitutionality of PASPA will surely be tested and the consequences of this ruling will be very far-reaching. Whichever side loses the battle in the district court will likely appeal, meaning it may be some time before it is settled whether New Jersey can proceed with its plan to implement sports betting.