Denied: Rhode Island Sports Betting Challenge Fails But More Drama Is Possible

Posted on June 4, 2020 - Last Updated on June 3, 2020

A challenge to the legality of Rhode Island sports betting failed but may not be over. The result of the lawsuit could define the ability of the state legislature to expand gambling in the future.

Last week, a Providence Superior Court Judge ruled against former Providence mayoral candidate Daniel Harrop‘s civil complaint against the state. That settles the question for now but Harrop still has options.

What was Harrop’s beef with Rhode Island sports betting?

Harrop’s argument centered around the RI Legislature enacting a gambling expansion law without holding a voter referendum on the matter. He believed the RI Constitution required voters’ approval for any expansion of legal gambling.

He sued Gov. Gina Raimondo and others to try to force the issue. Additionally, he petitioned the court for an injunction that would have immediately halted all legal wagering in the state pending the result of such a referendum.

He asked the court for summary judgment (a ruling on the case’s merits as presented in briefs without oral arguments). Last week, Judge Brian Stern denied the request for an injunction and found for the defendants.

“The Court finds that based on the plain language of the Referenda Questions and the definition of casino gaming in the Handbooks, voters had ‘fair notice’ that they were broadly approving all casino gaming and any other game included within the definition of Class III gaming.”

Stern essentially ruled that when RI voters authorized casino gaming in 2012, they approved all types of gaming at those facilities. Additionally, because online wagering in the state takes place on servers located at the state’s casinos, such activity falls within that scope.

The in-person registration requirement for online betting may hamper the growth of sports betting in RI. However, it may actually have helped its case because it is another tie to casinos.

Although this is a defeat for Harrop, it may not be the end. Whether this drama continues depends on how dedicated Harrop is to his stance.

The potential ramifications if Harrop presses on

Harrop can appeal the ruling all the way up to the RI Supreme Court. That could prove costly, however, not only financially but to Harrop’s interests and it will be a difficult path.

In civil matters, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff. That burden gets heavier with each appeal.

In an appeal, Harrop not only needs to convince courts of the merits of his argument but that Stern and perhaps future lower courts erred in their decisions. That’s assuming the courts actually hear Harrop’s appeals.

With each defeat, the precedent for what Harrop is arguing against grows stronger. A RI Supreme Court ruling that says the Legislature can expand casino gaming in the state without voter approval would settle the question once and for all.

That plays an important role is if RI ever approaches the matter of iGaming in the state. Right now, the only forms of legal online gambling are pari-mutuel betting and sports wagering.

A Supreme Court ruling on this matter in the defendants’ favor could someday inspire confidence in the legislature’s ability to legalize online slots and table games. In that way, Harrop’s lawsuit could actually have lead to more gambling expansion without voter approval.

For now, Harrop’s efforts to sideline legal sports betting in RI have failed. It could backfire if he decides to press the matter.

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Derek Helling

Derek Helling is a freelance journalist who resides in Kansas City, Mo. He is a 2013 graduate of the University of Iowa and covers the intersections of sports with business and the law.

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