WASHINGTON – Experts, attorneys and states’ rights activists are optimistic that the U.S. Supreme Court will pave the way for states, including Mississippi, to implement sports betting following oral arguments heard by the court on Dec. 4.
The nation’s highest court heard arguments on whether sports betting should be legalized at New Jersey casinos and racetracks. At issue is the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, which effectively outlawed sports betting nationwide except for Nevada.
Mississippi is one of five states that officially joined New Jersey’s effort to have the case heard by the Supreme Court, and if the court rules favorably state officials and gaming operators are poised to offer the game immediately. A ruling could come any time but is expected sometime in the spring.
“Should the Supreme Court issue a favorable ruling, the Mississippi Gaming Commission will be ready to address sports gambling,” Allen Godfrey, executive director of the commission, told Mississippi Today. “The time would be determined more by how long it takes the operators to get ready to offer it as a regulated game.”
Accurately predicting how justices might rule is difficult, but court analysts and legislative aides in Washington last week, assessing the words and tone of the nine justices during the oral arguments, were confidently predicting that the court will side with New Jersey.
Mississippi lawmakers have already tweaked state law to open the door for an immediate implementation of the game. Some have argued that they didn’t realize that was the intention of changes made to the state’s gaming laws.
In the 2017 session, the Legislature passed House Bill 967, which legalized sports fantasy betting in the state but also slipped in language that would legalize sports betting in Mississippi casinos if the federal ban is lifted.
Sponsors of that law never used the words “sports betting” in the bill’s language or while explaining the bill on the House and Senate floors. When Mississippi Today discovered the sports betting loophole created by the fantasy sports gaming law, lawmakers and legislative leaders denied having prior knowledge.
“We did not see (House Bill 967) in the same light as sports betting,” said Sen. Sean Tindell, R-Gulfport, who defended the bill in the Senate and was the main author on the identical Senate version. Tindell was later appointed to the Mississippi Court of Appeals by Gov. Phil Bryant.
“We knew there was a federal law that prohibited sports betting but allowed fantasy sports gaming,” Tindell said. “We weren’t concerned with sports betting then because we knew federal law would trump anything we could pass.”
House Speaker Philip Gunn, a Baptist deacon who “has always been opposed to gambling,” his spokesperson said earlier this year, signed the bill. Bryant, who told Mississippi Today last week he opposes sports betting, signed it into law.
Laura Hipp, spokeswoman for Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, issued this statement earlier this year: “Obviously, the original intent of HB 967 was to provide a legal framework for fantasy sports in Mississippi and the lieutenant governor supported that effort. As is often the case, different lawyers have different interpretations on whether the changes made, whether intentional or not, have any implications on other types of gaming in our State.”
“We are monitoring the actions of appropriate regulatory agencies and the Attorney General to see if any further clarification may be needed,” Hipp added.
States’ rights activists are also watching the case closely, citing constitutional concerns should the court rule against New Jersey.
States’ rights is perhaps the core component of the case, and it was argued as such before the high court. Attorneys for New Jersey argued that federal law cannot require states to act in certain ways, citing the “anti-commandeering” element of the 10th Amendment.
Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Anthony Kennedy and Justice Samuel Alito appeared to be more aligned with the states’ rights arguments of the New Jersey side, experts said.
“This case has very broad implications,” said Jonathan Wood, an attorney at Washington-based Pacific Legal Foundation. “If New Jersey wins, it means states have a lot of power to experiment on a lot of issues. If the leagues win, the federal government would effectively be telling states what laws their voters can or can’t pass.”