The U.S Supreme Court has just handed down its ruling in the landmark case of Texas Sport Betting v. Seibel. In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed the lower court’s decision and reversed it. The court ruled that Texas was within its rights to regulate its citizens from participating in sports gambling by placing bets on sports games. This meant that any form of gambling or wagering by a U.S. citizen on any type of sporting event is within the reach of Texas law. This case was one of the first major decisions on sports betting and greatly set the legal precedence that persists to this day.
Texas was a pioneer when it came to legalizing sports betting. The practice spread rapidly across the rest of the United States with the support of various state legislatures and the encouragement of the media. In Florida, for example, in 1898 the first ever legal sports betting was legalized and thereafter became the law there. Today, twenty-three states and the District of Columbia allow some form of legal gambling by individual consumers and many more to regulate it via professional sports leagues.
In this particular case, the plaintiff’s complaint against his unsuccessful friend and colleague, J. Richard Seibel, revolves around attempts to place wagers on the Texas Longhorn football game. Seibel was not licensed to do so and did not register himself as a sports bettor with the leagues that regulate such activities. He maintained that he had never made any wagers on the game and merely visited a few sporting matches to ‘have a good time.’ In a remarkably casual tone, Seibel attempted to establish a legal right to gamble on the game: ‘licensed to place wagers on the Texas Longhorn football game’, according to his declaration in court. This description, while obviously overbroad, would have been perfectly acceptable had the court chosen to adopt it as the definition of a legal right in a sports betting context.
However, the court did not go that far. It instead held that the term ‘sports betting’ was ambiguous and therefore qualified as a common expression, thus rendering it subject to common language interpretation rather than strict and definitive legal drafting. The court therefore held that the term should be defined as the regulation of a game of chance, and not as an authorization or right to gamble on the outcome of a sporting event. Seibel’s contention that the term should be regulated by the state was rejected, and the plaintiff lost its ability to pursue its claim through the sports betting statute. In other words, the Supreme Court today has reaffirmed that Congress may legislate over the activities of a private citizen through the use of sports gambling as long as those laws do not infringe upon the rights of others.
This language of the law has caused many to draw the conclusion that the Supreme Court’s holding in Sports Betting Clause v. Seibel is nothing more than a re-definition of the law in the form of a general statement. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The Majority opinion in Sports Betting Clause expressly left open the issue of regulating sports betting. Justice Ginsburg, writing for the four liberal members of the Court, concluded that the First Amendment allowed the regulation of conduct between sports book operators and bettors as long as a reasonable limit was in place to protect the public from unfair gambling. Writing for the four conservative members of the court, Justice Antonin Scalia suggested that the public has no right to regulate sports betting because the public has no interest in regulating gambling.
This is not a surprising result considering the utter futility of the attempts by the Supreme Court in the past to attempt to strike down state efforts to regulate sports betting. The Court has never before sustaining a law limiting a consumer’s right to engage in a commercial activity. This is because the Court has never before attempted to extend the regulation of speech to include a purely commercial activity.
One might have thought that the Court would have been more inclined to strike down the federal government’s regulation of gambling, but that hasn’t happened. Nowhere does the Court suggest that there is a legitimate public interest in regulating sports betting. Rather than protecting the public from dangerous and unlicensed gambling, the Court protects the sports books from having to compete with the states in which they have regulated themselves. There is nothing in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights that gives the Federal government the authority to dictate what the states must do.
Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan all concluded that the betting activity should be left completely unregulated. Writing for the majority, Justice Ginsburg claimed that the Court had never before considered the question of whether sports betting should be regulated. Writing for the four dissenters, Justice Kagan claimed that the Court had never before addressed the First Amendment issues involved in the case. Justice Scalia wrote the opinion of the court with respect to the legal reasoning of the majority, which is not consistent with the original meaning of the Constitution or the text of the Bill of Rights. In my view, the Court has no business extending the regulation of speech to the extent it does in this case and I would have granted certiorari to the lower court in order to prevent the Supreme Court from taking such an unwise step.