By Harold Brubaker
When the Christie administration declared on Monday that, effective immediately, casinos and horse racetracks may legally offer sports betting, legislators were quick to welcome the move.
"I'm happy," said Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union), a major proponent of sports betting whose bill designed to accomplish the same thing was vetoed by Christie this summer.
"The governor reversed course, and we're ready to go," Lesniak said.
By contrast, Atlantic City casino operators were quiet, an indication that legal sports betting is not likely to become an overnight reality in New Jersey.
"Officially, until we can fully understand all of the elements, it's premature to comment," said Katie Dougherty, spokeswoman for Caesars Entertainment Corp., which owns three casinos in the city, after closing Showboat on Aug. 31.
Borgata officials also had no comment, spokeswoman Liza Costandino said. Tropicana and Resorts did not respond to requests for comment.
That reticence did not surprise legal experts.
"I think, initially, casino operators will be cautious about embracing this because you are operating under an area of uncertainty," said Christopher L. Soriano, a gaming attorney in the Cherry Hill office of Duane Morris L.L.P.
The announcement Monday -- in the form of a directive from Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman explaining to New Jersey law enforcement officials that sports betting at casinos and racetracks is exempt from criminal liability -- is the latest effort in a yearslong push to bring sports betting to the state.
Christie's office issued the directive just hours before he attended a summit on the future of Atlantic City. After the meeting, Christie said the sports-wagering plan was not part of the discussion.
For years, proponents of sports betting have said it could help save Atlantic City casinos, which have lost more than 40 percent of their revenue to surrounding states. Four casinos are closing this year, eliminating about 7,000 jobs.
Those sports-betting backers had a victory in 2011 when voters approved a constitutional amendment to allow it.
But the National Collegiate Athletic Association and other sports leagues -- joined by the U.S. Department of Justice -- sued to block the 2012 law that implemented sports betting. A U.S. District Court judge in February 2013 issued an injunction in their favor.
New Jersey also lost in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which, a year ago, upheld the lower court decision. Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court in June declined to accept an appeal.
Despite the legal losses, New Jersey officials found language in the Third Circuit ruling that provided the basis for a new strategy that echoes one used by states to legalize marijuana.
The Third Circuit opinion said there's nothing in the federal Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act -- the law at issue in the NCAA lawsuit -- "to prohibit New Jersey from repealing its ban on sports wagering."
That law makes it illegal for a "governmental entity to sponsor, operate, advertise, promote, license, or authorize by law or compact" sports betting, which is what New Jersey had done by setting up a licensing regime under its 2012 Sports Wagering Act.
Thus, what New Jersey had to do to comply with the federal ruling was to drop the licensing requirement at the same time that it voided its own prohibition on sports betting, New Jersey officials concluded.
But U.S. District Court Judge Michael A. Shipp's injunction likely still stands in the way of legal sports betting actually happening in New Jersey, experts said.
That's why New Jersey officials filed a motion in federal court asking him to clarify or modify his injunction to make it clear that New Jersey's latest strategy complies with the Third Circuit opinion.
Unless that happens, sports fans are going to have to sit tight, experts said.
"I think with this injunction in place, New Jersey can't really be telling any casino or racetrack right now to go ahead and open up a sports betting operation," said A. Jeff Ifrah, a Washington gaming lawyer.
"The casinos want absolute certainty because they can't afford any licensing problems in other states," said Ifrah, whose firm, Ifrah Law, has an office in Atlantic City.
The plan by Christie came just a few days after National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver, speaking at the Bloomberg Sports Business Summit in New York last week, said he expected legal sports betting to spread.
Under the Christie directive, betting is still prohibited on college games taking being played in New Jersey and on games involving New Jersey colleges wherever they are played.
Joel Nyzio, 48, of Lafayette Hill, said sports betting might entice him to Atlantic City. Though he rarely goes to Atlantic City, he's been with friends to sports betting rooms in Las Vegas.
"It's fun," Nyzio said. "Everybody's jumping around. It always seemed like a good time."
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