SPORTS BETTING IN JERSEY IS LEGAL, EMPEROR CHRISTIE DECLARES

The Garden State’s embattled governor throws a Hail Mary, redoubling his efforts to expand sports betting to the cratering Atlantic City casino industry. Let’s see what the federal courts say

By Lewis Gould

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has evidently given up his intention to run for president of the United States.

He now sees himself as the emperor of the United States, bulletproof from the judgments of men in robes, also known as federal judges.

How else to explain his directive on Monday saying that New Jersey would not prosecute casinos and racetracks for accepting wagers on most athletic contests? The governor’s office said the prohibition would be lifted “effective today,” but it also sought approval from a judge who had earlier blocked sports betting, creating confusion about what would be allowed, and when.

The state’s racetracks and casinos seemed to be caught off guard by the announcement — as were federal officials and the professional sports leagues who have been fighting the Christie administration in court — and said that they had no plans to begin offering sports betting.

Even the state legislature’s biggest proponent of sports betting said he doubted that any casinos would allow bets until the judge had ruled.

Christie, fresh from a trip to Mexico that had the appearance of a presidential run, announced his betting plan on the same day that he had called a meeting to address the crisis in Atlantic City. Competition from casinos in other states has led to the closing or planned closing of four casinos there this year, including Revel, which the governor had championed when investors tried to pull out before it was completed.

Those closings will leave 8,000 people out of work, and the day opened with more bad news. Philly’s CBS3 reported that the Trump Taj Mahal would shut in November, putting an additional 2,800 employees out of work. The casino’s owners warned last week that it would have difficulty staying open. Already, New Jersey’s unemployment rate is higher than the national average and the rates of neighboring states.

Christie’s directive on Monday was an attempt to work around a 1992 federal law that bans states from sanctioning or licensing sports betting. Four states that allowed some form of sports betting were exempt, and New Jersey was allowed one year to pass legislation allowing it, but failed to do so.

In 2011, the state’s voters approved a constitutional amendment eliminating a prohibition on sports pools at casinos and racetracks. The following year, the Legislature passed a bill decriminalizing sports betting and establishing licensing requirements for casinos and racetracks to offer it.

Five major sports leagues and the United States attorney for New Jersey then challenged the state, saying the legislation violated the federal law, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act. That challenge was successful, and was upheld by the Third Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, which many sports betting advocates said was the end of the road for the plan.

But, as the state noted in its directive Monday, the leagues and the federal government acknowledged in court that while the state could not sponsor or license sports betting by law, there was nothing to stop New Jersey from repealing its own prohibition on sports betting. The Third Circuit agreed.

The directive said that casinos and racetracks would be exempt from criminal or civil prosecution for sports wagering, so long as they did not accept wagers on college or professional events that took place in New Jersey, or in which a team from any New Jersey college took part, regardless of where it was played.

In a filing by private lawyers hired to fight the case, the Christie administration asked the district court judge, Michael A. Shipp, to modify an injunction he issued in February 2013 blocking the state from allowing sports betting.

Christie’s move was unexpected; as recently as a month ago, he vetoed legislation that would have similarly repealed the prohibition on sports betting at casinos and racetracks.

State Senator Raymond Lesniak, a Democrat who has been the Legislature’s leading proponent of sports betting and was a sponsor of the legislation the governor vetoed last month, welcomed the directive, saying that it would simply permit gambling that already takes place every day.

“The profits were going to offshore businesses and organized crime,” he said. “Now it can be regulated and produce tax revenue for vital public needs and generate economic benefits for Atlantic City and the State of New Jersey.”

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