Supreme Court

Supreme Court Strikes Down Federal Law That Prohibited States From Legalizing Sports Gambling

"A more direct affront to state sovereignty is not easy to imagine."


In a major victory for federalism advocates, the U.S. Supreme Court today struck down a provision of federal law that prohibited state governments from legalizing sports gambling. "That provision unequivocally dictates what a state legislature may and may not do," the Supreme Court observed in Murphy v. National Collegiate Athletic Association. "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."

At issue in Murphy v. N.C.A.A. was a provision of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (PASPA), which made it illegal for "a governmental entity to sponsor, operate, advertise, promote, license, or authorize by law or compact" sports betting.

The state of New Jersey ran afoul of PASPA after voters amended the state constitution in order to legalize sports betting at racetracks and casinos. State lawmakers followed up by enacting a partial repeal of the existing state ban.

That partial repeal drew the ire of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the National Basketball Association, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, and the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball, all of which went to court in an effort thwart the Garden State's legalization effort. The sports leagues argued that the state had explicitly contravened the federal rule barring state legalization as spelled out in PASPA. The U.S. Justice Department agreed with the leagues and filed a supporting brief urging SCTOUS to rule against New Jersey.

In its opinion today, the Supreme Court acknowledged that New Jersey had indeed violated PASPA, but then concluded that the provision at issue was itself unconstitutional under the federalism principles contained in the 10th Amendment. "The legislative powers granted to Congress are sizable, but they are not unlimited," the Court observed. "The Constitution confers on Congress not plenary legislative power but only certain enumerated powers. Therefore, all other legislative power is reserved for the States, as the Tenth Amendment confirms. And conspicuously absent from the list of powers given to Congress is the power to issue direct orders to the governments of the States."

The majority opinion in the case was written by Justice Samuel Alito and joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Elena Kagan, and Neil Gorsuch. Justice Stephen Breyer concurred in part and dissented in part. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented in full, joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

The Supreme Court's opinion in Murphy v. N.C.A.A. is available here.

Click below to watch a Federalist Society video on the case featuring yours truly.