The legality of Rhode Island sports betting is under attack.
Brandon Bell, a former chair of the state’s Republican Party, helped to engineer a lawsuit challenging the legality of sports betting in Rhode Island.
“… the General Assembly has refused to follow our State Constitution by seeking voter approval before expanding gambling in the form of sports gambling, and now online sports gambling,” Bell said in a news release in March.
Josh Block, press secretary for Gov. Gina Raimondo, provided a statement about the suit to Legal Sports Report:
“Multiple legal opinions have affirmed that sports betting was already approved by the voters. The revenue from sports betting supports investments in education, health care, infrastructure and more, and we remain confident that it will be upheld in court.”
Substance of the sports betting suit
On Wednesday, attorneys for Daniel S. Harrop filed suit in Superior Court on behalf of the State of Rhode Island.
Harrop is a Providence physician and a former GOP candidate for mayor. Larisa Law and Fontaine Bell & Associates act as the plaintiff’s counsel in this effort against what they call “unconstitutional sports betting.”
Confirmation of the filing appeared on Twitter around midday:
Filed suit today to stop sports betting and future mobile sports betting (and virtual casino) until and unless R.I. voters approve. Table games were approved by voters in 2012 and 2016. Video lotteries were approved by voters in 2016.Sports betting has never been on the ballot.
— Joseph S. Larisa, Jr. (@JoeLarisa) May 1, 2019
Harrop and counsel are seeking declaratory judgment and injunctive relief, essentially looking to end RI sports betting. The compliant lists both the RI Division of Lotteries and the RI Department of Administration as defendants.
Backstory on Rhode Island sports betting
As a refresher, Rhode Island sports betting came about via inclusion in the state budget last year.
Raimondo initially allocated $23 million in related revenue, a projection which officials subsequently halved in the wake of a delayed launch.
Thanks in large part to Raimondo, the small state became the eighth in the US with regulated sports betting. Twin River Lincoln opened its sportsbook for business on Nov. 26, and the Tiverton property followed shortly thereafter.
In 2019, Rhode Island became the first state to pass a sports betting bill in back-to-back years. Recognizing that retail betting was not the path to profit, lawmakers approved an expansion to make sportsbooks available on computers and smartphones statewide.
Now, Harrop is asking the courts to declare that both RI sports betting laws violate the rights of the people.
RI constitution v. sports betting
The Rhode Island Constitution includes a 1994 amendment that provides the basis for the complaint. Here’s Article VI, § 22 in full:
Restriction of gambling. — No act expanding the types of gambling which are permitted within the state or within any city or town therein or expanding the municipalities in which a particular form of gambling is authorized shall take effect until it has been approved by the majority of those electors voting in a statewide referendum and by the majority of those electors voting in a referendum in the municipality in which the proposed gambling would be allowed.
In plain language, any attempt to expand gambling requires the approval of resident voters. As Larisa notes, table games and video lottery terminals at the two Twin River casinos owe their existence to separate referendums in 2012 and 2016.
When it comes to sports betting, however, voters were not asked to weigh in. As noted in the filing, the activity was (mostly) illegal under federal law until 2018.
Here’s how Larisa, a former gubernatorial chief of staff, summarized his client’s complaint:
In short, it is beyond peradventure that Rhode Island voters have never made the free, intelligent and informed decision to approve sports betting that the Constitution requires.
By that logic …
Prohibitions like this exist in many state constitutions, including several that either have or have considered legalized sports betting. New York, for example, is subject to a similar restriction against expanding gambling laws via the legislative channel.
Like Rhode Island, the NY casino referendum in 2013 — which serves as the foundation for NY sports betting — did not mention the term. Lawmakers there are presently concerned with online sports betting as it may relate to another ballot initiative.
Sports betting legislation in such states partially hinges on the legal interpretation of terms like “expanding” and “casino gaming.” Is sports betting an expansion of gambling, legally speaking? Or does it fall under federal provisions broadly concerning Class III gaming?
It’s not clear. The plaintiff, however, argues the former:
Sports betting is a different type of gambling. The outcome is not determined by machines or cards or any device inside the casino. Instead, it is instead determined by the performance and skill of external players and teams outside the casino engaging in sporting events.
RI sports betting complaint in full
Here is the suit:RI v. RI Division of Lotteries