Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014 | 3:13 p.m.
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — New Jersey is swinging for the fences in a long-shot effort to overturn a federal ban on sports betting in all but four states, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to declare the ban unconstitutional.
With a federal appeals panel ruling against the state, New Jersey is appealing to the nation's highest court to consider two legal questions: Does the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act usurp state authority, in violation of the 10th amendment? And does its granting permission to only four states to conduct sports betting violate the principal of equal sovereignty?
The panel ruled New Jersey law allowing sports betting conflicts with the federal law, which limits sports betting to states that legalized it before a 1991 deadline — Delaware, Montana, Nevada, and Oregon. At the time, New Jersey was given the chance to become the fifth state but failed to act during a prescribed window.
But New Jersey says in its appeal, filed Feb. 12, that the federal law is unconstitutional because it treats states differently.
There is no guarantee the Supreme Court will even agree to hear the appeal. The state's best chances may be the way the federal law is written.
No federal law directly prohibits individuals from betting on sports, the state argues. Rather, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act makes it unlawful for a "governmental entity" to license or authorize sports wagering activity.
"The ability of the states to convey a 'label of legitimacy' on private conduct lies at the heart of their retained sovereignty," the state appeal says. "Congress may express its own disapproval of sports wagering through direct regulation of the activity, but, having declined to enact any such direct regulation, has no authority to regulate the approval or disapproval expressed by the states."
State Sen. Raymond Lesniak, a northern New Jersey Democrat who has been pushing to legalize sports betting in the state, has acknowledged the seemingly long odds but also says he likes the state's chances. He notes the Supreme Court has recently favored states' rights.
"You can't win it unless you're in it," he said. "We're in it, and we're in it to win!
A spokesman for Gov. Chris Christie, who has strongly supported the legalization of sports betting, declined comment Tuesday.
The state is suing the four major professional sports leagues, which support the existing ban.
Major League Baseball, the National Football league, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League, along with the National Collegiate Athletic Association, say the perception of the games' integrity might be compromised by state-sanctioned betting on them. The U.S. Justice department joined the litigation on the side of the sports leagues.
In a non-binding referendum in 2011, New Jerseyans said they wanted to see legal sports betting in their state. Sports betting proponents say it would help Atlantic City's 11 casinos and the state's four racetracks — the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, Monmouth Park in Oceanport, Freehold Raceway and Atlantic City Race Course in Mays Landing.
They say legal sports betting also would provide a new source of revenue from a huge pool of money that now flows untaxed to unlicensed offshore Internet sites or to illegal bookmakers, many of whom are allied with organized crime.