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Deconstructing Chris Christie’s Fishy PASPA Turnabout

If there’s been a topic of widespread political interest to US-based gamblers and sports bettors in recent weeks, it’s been the tumultuous series of events surrounding New Jersey’s latest efforts to implement legalized, voter-approved sports betting in the state.  New Jersey’s years-long battle to override a federal mandate called PASPA (the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act) has been the focal point of the struggle, just as the leading character in the story has been the state’s highest-ranking politician, Governor Chris Christie.

Christie’s role in this years-long saga has been that of the dedicated line-walker, always ready to say the right things to support the state or his national political aspirations while utterly failing to act decisively on the issue.  Christie’s role as the consummate — read: soulless — politician in the state’s sportsbetting struggle continued this week, with his apparent reversal on the topic of New Jersey sports betting.

Welcome to New JerseyBy calling a summit to discuss the state’s and Atlantic City’s failing gaming industry, and using the occasion to issue a directive via his state’s Attorney General’s Office declaring that licensed casinos and racetracks in the state will not be prosecuted for offering sportsbetting services, Christie has presented himself as appeasing the state’s gambling interests, not to mention the will of the voters.  The announcement came just weeks after Christie himself vetoed a New Jersey legislative measure that would have overridden the federal PASPA ban.  Christie himself, in issuing that veto, declared that “the rule of law is sacrosanct, binding on all Americans.”

So Christie has reversed himself again, tossing the state and its gambling industry a giant bone.

Except that bone’s made of rubber, and like a giant, bad check, it’s going to bounce.  The odds that the directive as issued by Christie’s office will actually allow the state’s casinos and racetracks to offer sports betting without being shut down by federal marshals are very long indeed; Christie’s directive itself is likely unenforceable, and not worth the paper it was printed on.

There are numerous legal problems afoot, the largest of which appears to be the topic of severability.  (The best explanation of several already out there is probably that offered by attorney Michael M. over at his CrAAKKer blog.  And here’s a link to a follow-up post of Michael’s that you’ll want to read as well, detailing some of the expected fallout to this week’s move.)

In short, attempts to sever provisions from existing laws are generally declared invalid when the provision that’s severed is the actual core of the larger law.  How that applies to the New Jersey situation is that the state’s existing sportsbetting laws clearly ban the practice, so the laws themselves would have to be annulled in their entirety, just not partially exempted or claimed to be covered indirectly through the state’s issuance of gaming licenses.

Christie’s directive, in other words, doesn’t appear to pass even the lowest of possible hurdles likely to be set in its path.  It’s such a cheap-jack attempt at a political fix that Caesars Entertainment has already announced that it will not offer sportsbetting at its New Jersey casinos, despite the Christie proclamation, unless it receives a very unlikely federal go-ahead.

And if a company that’s $20 billion in debt is saying “no thanks” to a purported financial boost, one can bet it’s a giant pile of fishwrap.

This week’s New Jersey summit between Christie and other lawmakers on the issue hints at a horsetrade.  Christie had previously vetoed a rushed bill put through in the wake of New Jersey’s federal-court PASPA loss, which would have accomplished what needed to be done — simply repealing the portion of New Jersey sportsbetting prohibitions that applied to the state’s licensed racetracks and casinos.  The flip side of that bare-bones approach is that it would have left sportsbetting at those venues unregulated by the state… and perhaps untaxed as well.  Whether that was wise or not isn’t really the point; writing a bill that would properly counterract PASPA was the logical starting point.

Christie vetoed that, citing his “rule of law” sanctimony.  But then he’s declared that his own state law won’t be enforced.  How does that make sense?

A more logical explanation is this, even though we’ll likely never know the truth: State lawmakers probably informed Christie that they had the votes to override his veto of Lesniak’s earlier PASPA-dodging bill.  Christie has never had a veto of his overridden before, and desperately wants to keep that record intact as he prepares a very possible run for national office.

Worse, Christie doesn’t want to be seen as being the single obstacle in the way of what appears to be the best available revival mechanism for Atlantic City’s moribund casino industry.  In the wake of the Labor Day wave of announced casino closures, Christie was likely forced to convene the summit and propose a horse trade: Take another shot at drafting a more legally sound PASPA workaround — a more exact repeal of New Jersey’s existing ban on sports betting — and he’ll likely sign off on it.

Christie’s issuing of the directive, then, is a face-saving delay.  He knows the directive is baloney.  His state’s officials might not enforce the existing laws, but his statement makes no claim as to what the feds might do, and it allows Christie to argue later to national GOP conservatives that he simply backed out of the battle and allowed the federal forces free reign to stomp out the pro-sportsbetting move in the state on their own.

One decision, a clarification on the appellate court ruling regarding PASPA, is due in late October.  However, Lesniak has already announced another bill, and that will likely result in another legal challenge.  From Christie’s view, it might be so much the better if all of it can be delayed until after 2016.

That just leaves the question of why.  Why issue a directive that’s so likely to be tossed out, that has so little chance of passing a court challenge?  New Jersey’s AG office isn’t that stupid, and the problems within Christie’s directive are plainly evident.  But they are paid, in a sense, to do the governor’s bidding… and so they have.

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  1. Grange95

    Astute political insights. But I think your best observation is one that escaped me: “And if a company that’s $20 billion in debt is saying “no thanks” to a purported financial boost, one can bet it’s a giant pile of fishwrap.” Bingo!

    Also, thanks for the links. Glad to know someone occasionally wades through my legal musings.

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