The Story Behind The Two-Year-Old Historic Sports Betting Ruling

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Supporters of the expansion of legal, regulated gambling in the U.S. are celebrating the second anniversary of the May 14, 2018, U.S. Supreme Court ruling that vacated a 26-year-old federal law that prevented almost every state from offering sports betting.

But for those in the trenches of New Jersey’s seven-year, ultimately victorious effort, there are two other dates that are at least as memorable.

The first is June 26, 2017 — the day that the Court elected to take up the case at all. Fewer than 1 in 100 appeals are typically accepted, and four of the nine justices have to agree to hear the case based on some sort of Constitutional grounds.

“It is a very good sign for sports betting having a future in New Jersey,” Gov. Chris Christie said at the time. “We’re not declaring victory, but at least we’re in the game, and that’s where we want to be.”

Gaming lobbyist William Pascrell III, a backer of legal sports betting since at least 2009, said: “In many ways I am a bit surprised, having had so many disappointments. But we’ve never gotten this far, so now at least we have a puncher’s chance.”

The decision by the court to take up the case was a particular surprise because this was the only case of more than 100 up for potential review in January 2017 that the court sent to the U.S. Solicitor General’s office for a recommendation.

Ignoring ‘Solicited’ advice

That office, whose leader is informally described as the Court’s “10th Justice” because of their close relationship, soon offered its advice: There is no pressing Constitutional reason to take up the case.

Of the previous 20 such cases — 10 recommendations to the court to review, 10 others not to review — the court had accepted the Solicitor General’s suggestion in every single instance.

Yet here, the court ignored the advice and announced it would press forward.

“When they decided to take the case anyway, we knew we were in,” former New Jersey state Senator Ray Lesniak, a founding father of the sports betting movement, told NJ Online Gambling.

But those hopes from mid-2017 turned bolder five months later, when a Dec. 4 oral argument before the court seemed particularly promising.

Monmouth Park operator Dennis Drazin — an attorney who attended the argument in Washington, D.C., that day — said that the claim by federal attorneys that Congress’s law was not too intrusive on New Jersey, because it left room for the state to remove all of its gambling restrictions if it chose to do so, seemed to strike a nerve.

“When I saw the Solicitor General being grilled about the idea of 12-year-olds being able to walk up to betting windows, I saw scowls on the faces of some of the judges,” said Drazin, who added that he immediately began accelerating plans with the William Hill sportsbook firm to construct a location to handle sports betting at his Oceanport track.

Another confident sports betting supporter

Lesniak said that others had similar sentiments that day.

“Think of all the battles I’ve had with Christie over the years, but when we walked outside, I hugged him — and he hugged me back,” Lesniak said. “I knew victory was at hand. There wasn’t any anxiety whatsoever, because there were no surprises in the hearing.”

The court two years ago struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, which allowed only Nevada to maintain its full scale of sports betting and permitted only a handful of states to offer any such wagering at all.

As it happens, the man behind that law was New Jersey’s own Senator Bill Bradley, who starred for the New York Knicks’ only two NBA championship teams in 1970 and 1973.

Bradley told The Bergen Record in 2011 that he was deeply struck by an incident near the end of a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden. A seemingly meaningless basket by the opponent prompted some unexpected cheers, and an inquiring Bradley was told it meant the other team had covered the point spread and thus some fans had won their illegal bets.

“I certainly didn’t like the idea of being a roulette chip,” Bradley said.

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John Brennan

John Brennan has covered NJ and NY sports business and gaming since 2002 and was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist in 2008, while reporting for The Bergen County Record.

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