The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday struck down a federal law that barred sports betting in most states, but the ruling will have no immediate impact on Texas, where wagering on sporting events remains illegal.
To change that, the Texas Legislature would have to change state law — and probably the Texas Constitution as well — while overcoming strong anti-gambling sentiments that have doomed efforts to loosen state gambling laws in recent legislative sessions.
Still, Monday’s 6-3 ruling is likely to renew efforts to expand gambling in Texas, said Jay Stewart, an Austin lawyer who has worked on gambling issues for more than two decades.
“I’m sure that bills will be filed. I think the general atmosphere against casinos and gambling in Texas will continue, and sports betting is something you do generally in a casino — in person or online — so I think those attitudes would have to change,” Stewart said.
“I would find it a huge stretch to say this ruling will generate interest in allowing casinos in Texas, but people will nibble around the edges” of anti-gambling laws, he said.
Petitioned by New Jersey, which tried to expand sports betting to casinos in Atlantic City in 2012, the Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which, with limited exceptions, has barred states from licensing or authorizing gambling on sporting events since 1992.
By dictating what state lawmakers may or may not do to legalize sports gambling, the act improperly placed state legislatures under the control of Congress in violation of the 10th Amendment, said Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the court.
“It is as if federal officers were installed in state legislative chambers and were armed with the authority to stop legislators from voting on any offending proposals. A more direct affront to state sovereignty is not easy to imagine,” he said.
“Congress can regulate sports gambling directly, but if it elects not to do so, each state is free to act on its own,” Alito added.
Pro-gambling forces greeted the ruling with enthusiasm, saying it will allow willing states to generate additional tax revenue, provide an economic boost to sports organizations and help law enforcement combat illegal gambling.
“Today’s ruling makes it possible for states and sovereign tribal nations to give Americans what they want — an open, transparent and responsible market for sports betting,” said Geoff Freeman, president of the American Gaming Association, a trade group that represents the U.S. casino industry.
Gambling opponents predicted the decision would corrupt college and pro sports while fueling gambling addictions, leading to squandered savings and other family problems.
The National Conference of State Legislatures praised the court, saying the ruling affirmed each state’s right to legalize or prohibit wagering on sports without federal interference.
“This landmark ruling provides states another tool with which they can continue to craft smart, tailored policies during a time of congressional gridlock in Washington,” the organization said.
In Texas, the smart money is on the continued prohibition of sports betting, at least for the foreseeable future, observers said Monday.
Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and majorities in the Texas House and Senate have consistently opposed efforts to expand gambling in Texas, said Rob Kohler, a consultant for the Christian Life Commission, the public policy arm of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, which fights legalized gambling.
“I don’t see their positions changing,” he said. “This ruling doesn’t change the game here in this state.”
Consistently thwarted in recent years, pro-gambling forces have adopted a lower profile at the Legislature, even skipping the release of reports listing the economic advantages of gambling, which were common ways to kick-start the conversation before legislative sessions at the beginning of the decade and earlier, Kohler said.
Stewart said Monday’s Supreme Court ruling could spark a legislative conversation about allowing sports betting in Texas, but accomplishing the change would be difficult.
To make sports betting a reality, the Legislature would have to change criminal laws that prohibit gambling, adopt new regulatory schemes and set appropriate taxes, he said. In addition, the Texas Constitution generally bans gambling, so an amendment allowing sports wagering would probably be needed — a process that requires the approval of two-thirds of the members of the House and Senate, followed by voter approval in a statewide election.
The difficulty of the task is one reason gambling interests are concentrating on other states, Stewart said.
And even if the political will could be found in Texas, don’t expect quick action, he said.
“Imposing that type of structure, based on history, has been very difficult to do in Texas,” Stewart said. “I can’t predict the future in that sense, but horse racing under (former Gov.) Ann Richards — that took a lot of work, a lot of sessions. Bingo, the lottery — all of those things required multiple sessions.”