US judge nixes plan to allow sports betting at New Jersey casinos, tracks; appeal on the way

A federal judge ruled Friday night that New Jersey cannot partially lift a prohibition on sports betting in an effort to boost its struggling horse racing and casino industries, a finding Gov. Chris Christie’s administration intends to appeal.

The decision from U.S. District Judge Michael Shipp was the expected outcome since he had ruled similarly in the past.

The state, locked in a legal battle with the NCAA and the four major U.S. professional sports leagues, has already filed a notice of appeal, Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for the Republican governor, said shortly after the judge’s decision was announced.

That stance is uniting New Jersey’s elected officials.

“We are going to continue pursuing every legal option available,” said state Senate president Steve Sweeney, a Democrat. “The economic impact that sports wagering can have on New Jersey is far too important to simply shrug our shoulders and move on.”

State Sen. Raymond Lesniak, who has led the push for sports betting in New Jersey, called it “important for our entire state, but especially for Atlantic City,” where four casinos have closed this year.

A federal law bans New Jersey and most other states from authorizing betting on sports. But the state contended it did not want to license or authorize the betting. Instead, it was seeking to end a prohibition.

But the judge agreed with the sports leagues that setting parameters such as limiting sports gambling to certain places amounts to regulation.

While he agreed with the central part of the sports’ leagues argument, he dismissed some of their other arguments.

New Jersey has been pushing persistently to allow sports betting at horse tracks and casinos. Voters have approved the concept, but a federal court rejected it in a slightly different form. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case earlier this year, and it seemed that might be the end of it.

But as the financial crisis in Atlantic City’s casinos deepened, Christie’s administration tried a new approach. Instead of legalizing sports gambling in defiance of the leagues and federal government, it called for not enforcing the state’s ban. The Legislature followed with a bill to lift the ban as it pertains to casinos and tracks. Christie signed that into law last month.

The NCAA, the NBA, the NFL, the NHL and Major League Baseball contend that federal law would allow the state to lift the ban entirely but not to allow sports betting with some conditions, such as limiting it to certain locations and keeping minors from participating.

The ruling comes just over a week after NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said he supports legalizing sports gambling though not in the way it would happen if New Jersey prevailed. Silver is the first commissioner of a major U.S. sports league to make such a stand.