WASHINGTON -- New Jersey's long quest to overturn a federal ban on sports betting won support from some U.S. Supreme Court justices Monday, leaving Gov. Chris Christie and other supporters optimistic about the state's chances.
"I thought the hearing went great," Christie said afterwards on the steps in front of the Supreme Court building. "This is the fear of every governor, that we'll be at the mercy of the federal government and that they'll make us pay for it. It's not right and I believe here that it's very clear that the federal government overstepped its bounds."
Legalized sports betting would be "the lifeblood of Atlantic City and our racetracks," said state Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, the legislature's biggest proponent of sports betting.
Court to hear sports betting arguments
The crux of the argument by the state's attorney, veteran litigator Theodore Olson, was that the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, designed to ban sports betting in 46 states, was an unconstitutional attempt by Washington to tell the states what to do.
"This statute attempted to have the states ban sports betting," Olson said
Currently, only Nevada, Delaware, Montana, and Oregon can offer sports betting. New Jersey was given a year to legalize such wagering under the 1992 law but failed to do so.
Justice Stephen Breyer picked up on Olson's argument, saying Congress has the right to prohibit state activities that conflict with federal law -- such as preventing states from passing rules governing airlines after federal lawmakers deregulated the industry -- but not to require states to enact rules to enforce federal law.
"I wish I had said that," Olson said.
"Is that your argument?" Breyer said.
"That is my argument," Olson responded.
This case reached the U.S. Supreme Court on appeal from U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, which threw out a 2014 state law attempting to get around the federal prohibition by allowing New Jersey's casinos and racetracks to offer betting without the state approving or regulating the activity.
"The idea that the federal government could nullify laws of the state was debated when the Constitution was being debated. It was defeated," Christie said afterwards. "This is not some thing we're unsure of what the founders thought. We we know what the founders thought."
Since the law was passed, casinos have spread to most states and professional sports teams are playing in Las Vegas, said Geoff Freeman, president and chief executive of the American Gaming Association, the casino industry's trade group.
"This is simply an outdated law," he said.
During oral arguments, Justice Sonia Sotomayor told Olson that the federal government has the right to regulate commercial activity. Olson agreed, but noted, "Congress has not chosen to do that in this case."
And Justice Anthony Kennedy said having the federal government tell states what to do "blurs political accountability."
New Jersey's attempt to enact sports betting is strongly opposed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the four major professional sports leagues, which have sued to block it.
Paul Clement, representing the sports leagues, said the law was clear.
"It tells the states they may not operate sports betting," Clement said
Justice Samuel Alito asked Clement why the federal government didn't simply ban sports betting itself. Clement responded that the law gives states the flexibility to decide how they want to enforce the ban "rather than a one-size-fits-all federal felony."
U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. asked Clement whether the federal government could tell states they couldn't levy an income tax higher than 6 percent or must limit public employee pensions.
Clement said the law was addressed to state and local governments because they were the ones who pass laws that can be rejected because they contradict federal policy.
"You're already telling the states they can't do something," he said.
Afterwards, Christie said the state's casinos and racetracks could begin taking bets two weeks after a favorable court ruling.
"We're like Boy Scouts," Christie said. "We're prepared."
The cases are Christie et al v. NCAA et al 16-476; and New Jersey Throughbred Horesmen's Association v. NCAA et al 16-477.
Jonathan D. Salant may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JDSalant or on Facebook. Find NJ.com Politics on Facebook....Read more