SALT LAKE CITY — Though Republican Utah lawmakers hailed Monday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling clearing the way for states to legalize sports betting as a win for states' rights, don't expect to throw down a few bucks on your favorite football or basketball team anytime soon.
Utah isn't likely to allow betting on sports, which would take the Legislature and voters overturning the state constitution's ban on all forms of gambling.
"I tend to believe that it will not be legalized in our state and through our legislative process," said Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper. "But the debate will occur, for sure, and I think it will be a good one."
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said the Supreme Court ruling would have "zero" impact on Utah.
Gov. Gary Herbert "appreciates the court's reaffirmation of states' rights to regulate gambling, a right Utah will exercise by continuing to prohibit gambling within our state," said his spokesman, Paul Edwards.
The high court voted 6-3 to strike down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, the 1992 law prohibiting state-authorized sports gambling with some exceptions. It made Nevada the only state where a person could bet on the outcome of a game.
"The legalization of sports gambling requires an important policy choice, but the choice is not ours to make," Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion. "Congress can regulate sports gambling directly, but if it elects not to do so, each state is free to act on its own."
Alito wrote that it's the court's job to interpret whether the laws Congress enacts are constitutional, and "PASPA is not."
One research firm estimated before the ruling that if the Supreme Court were to strike down the law, 32 states would likely offer sports betting within five years, according to the Associated Press.
"I think states are flexing their muscles and being able to say, 'Hey, we're sovereign states and we can make these decisions and have these deliberations in our legislative bodies — and federal government, we don't need you to play babysitter," Hughes said.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, one of four original sponsors of the 1992 law, is already laying the groundwork for new sports betting legislation. The problems posed by sports gambling are much the same as they were 25 years ago, he said, and betting across state lines is now just a click away on the internet.
"We cannot allow this practice to proliferate amid uneven enforcement and a patchwork race to the regulatory bottom. At stake here is the very integrity of sports," he said in a statement.
Hatch said his proposal in the coming weeks would help protect "honesty and principle" in the athletic arena.
Congress might also consider setting standards for sports betting that would protect consumers, safeguard against underage and problem gambling, and help states that choose not to permit sports betting.
The court's decision came in a case from New Jersey, which has fought for years to legalize gambling on sports at casinos and racetracks in the state. All four major U.S. professional sports leagues — the NBA, NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball — along with the NCAA and the federal government had urged the court to uphold the federal law.
Alito noted that sports gambling has long had strong opposition.
"Opponents argue that it is particularly addictive and especially attractive to young people with a strong interest in sports, and in the past gamblers corrupted and seriously damaged the reputation of professional and amateur sports," he wrote, referencing the Chicago White Sox throwing the 1919 World Series.
Utah and Hawaii are the only states that have no legalized gaming of any kind.
Under Utah law, gambling means risking something of value in a contest where the outcome is based on an element of chance with the understanding that someone will receive something of value in the event of a certain outcome.
The Utah Attorney General's Office declined to weigh in on Monday's Supreme Court ruling, saying it has more to do with federalism than gambling and decisions about whether to allow sports betting rest with the Utah Legislature.
Alito said the 1992 act that limits states' ability to pass laws related to sports betting violates a legal doctrine preventing the federal government from "commandeering" state or local officials.
"That provision unequivocally dictates what a state legislature may and may not do," he wrote. "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."
All of Alito's Republican-appointed colleagues joined in the majority opinion, as did Justice Elena Kagan, a Democratic appointee.
"The reason I appreciate the opinion is it's pointing to the states' ability to regulate, make decisions on these issues," Hughes said. "I think that points to more of the intended autonomy of the states."
Weiler, too, said it's a victory for states' rights.
"I don't think the Supreme Court is particularly interested in gambling on sports games," he said. "I think what they're interested in is does Congress have the power to tell 50 states, 'No, you can't do this.'"
Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said he has always found it odd that sports gambling is against the law everywhere but Nevada. Still, illegal betting on sports is already happening around the country, he said.
"So in that context, I think there's actually some wisdom in legalizing it because if it's legalized, then states can put some limitations on it, they can put some regulatory framework in place," he said.15 comments on this story
Bramble said he suspects Utah would continue to be one of two states that doesn't permit gambling and "I support that as well."
Les Bernal, national director of Stop Predatory Gambling based in Washington, D.C., called the issue a "naked money grab from the wallets of ordinary Americans cloaked as a states' rights case."
"This litigation was conceived in greed by powerful gambling interests in partnership with a handful of self-serving politicians to benefit a privileged few," he said in a statement.