Supreme Court Rules States Can Legalize Sports Gambling, Reaffirming Limits of Federal Authority

Sports betting at the New York-New York Casino in Las Vegas.

Sports betting at the New York-New York Casino in Las Vegas. Shutterstock


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The high court made clear that state legislatures have a “dual sovereignty” with their federal counterparts.

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned a federal law that barred most states from legalizing sports betting on Monday—and with it, reaffirmed the independence of state legislatures from federal control. 

The case opens an opportunity for states to reexamine their position on legalization of sports gambling—something Congress banned in 1992 under the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, known as PASPA. In finding PASPA unconstitutional, the court reaffirms the federal government cannot tell state legislatures what laws to pass, repeal, or keep on the books.

According the the decision written by Justice Samuel Alito, Congress can pass legislation allowing the federal government to “regulate sports gambling directly” if it chooses to do so. However, he stated, “if it elects not to do so, each State is free to act on its own.”

“Our job is to interpret the law Congress has enacted and decide whether it is consistent with the Constitution,” he explained. “PASPA is not.”

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who originally filed the lawsuit, quickly touted the decision as  a win for “the rights of states and their people to make their own decisions” over twitter. Current Gov. Phil Murphy also released a statement, saying he was “thrilled” with the victory.

“New Jersey has long been the lead advocate in fighting this inherently unequal law, and today’s ruling will finally allow for authorized facilities in New Jersey to take the same bets that are legal in other states in our country,” Murphy said.

The case, Governor of New Jersey v. the National Collegiate Athletic Association, stems from an effort by the Garden State to legalize sports gambling. Professional sports leagues and the NCAA claimed this was a violation of PASPA, which effectively barred most states from legalizing gambling on sports by forbidding states from any effort “to sponsor, operate, advertise, promote, license, or authorize by law or compact” sports betting.

Therefore, New Jersey tried a different tact: It simply repealed its laws barring sports gambling. The central question before the Supreme Court was whether a federal law could stop a legislature from repealing laws they have on the books.

New Jersey argued that forcing a state government to keep laws on the books was unconstitutional, violating the 10th amendment, which provides that “powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

In previous rulings—the latest being Printz v. United States in 1997—the Supreme Court created an “anticommandeering doctrine,” which halts the federal government from forcing states to adopt or apply laws or regulations. The case before the court essentially asked the justices to extend that ruling to say the federal government also cannot force states to keep laws static.

In ruling for New Jersey, the Supreme Court upheld the anticommandeering doctrine. In his opinion for the majority of the court, Justice Alito stated:

The legislative powers granted to Congress are sizable, but they are not unlimited. The Constitution confers on Congress not plenary legislative power but only certain enumerated powers. Therefore, all other legislative power is reserved for the States, as the Tenth Amendment confirms. And conspicuously absent from the list of powers given to Congress is the power to issue direct orders to the governments of the States. The anticommandeering doctrine simply represents the recognition of this limit on congressional authority.

Alito explained, quoting Printz, that the anti-commandeering doctrine serves as “one of the Constitution’s structural protections of liberty.” He also said the doctrine “promotes political accountability” by voters being able to understand “who to credit and who to blame,” as well as limiting Congress from “shifting the costs of regulation to the States.”

There were dissenting opinions to the ruling regarding whether the entire statute should have been thrown out, or whether only pieces of the statute that were identified as violating the Constitution should have been removed.

The full court ruling is available hereRoute Fifty previewed the arguments back in December.

Mitch Herckis is Senior Director of Programs for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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