LINCOLN – Two GOP-affiliated lawyers want to close the book on sports betting at the Twin River casinos here and in Tiverton – until and unless the practice is explicitly approved by voters in statewide and local referendums.
Lawyers Joseph Larisa and Brandon Bell – the former GOP state chairman – filed suit in Superior Court Wednesday, arguing that lawmakers and Gov. Gina Raimondo did an end run around the Rhode Island constitution when they authorized sports betting at the state’s two casinos last year. A 1994 amendment to the document, they contend, prohibits the state from adding new types of gambling without prior approval of a majority of voters, statewide and in the community where the expansion takes place.
Psychiatrist Daniel Harrop, a onetime candidate for mayor of Providence, is the plaintiff in the suit, which also contends that online sports betting – approved by the General Assembly during the current session, but not yet implemented – would also be constitutionally unlawful without prior approval by referendum.
Reached by phone, Larisa portrayed the suit as an underdog battle that pits the rule of law against the government’s powerful interests in growing an important source of state revenue.
“It’s David versus Goliath all over again,” said Larisa, a former city solicitor in Woonsocket. “They’re going to throw the kitchen sink at this because they have a major vested interested in this. All we’re fighting for is to let the people vote – that’s all we want.”
A spokesman for Raimondo said the suit is without merit.
“Multiple legal opinions have affirmed that sports betting was already approved by the voters,” said Josh Block, the governor’s press secretary. “Revenue from sports betting supports investments in education, health care, infrastructure and more, and we remain confident that it will be upheld in court.”
The General Assembly amended the state’s gambling laws to permit sports betting at the Twin River venues last year after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act. A federal law on the books for decades, the act had prohibited states from operating or authorizing any kind of sports betting.
In their 22-page Superior Court complaint, however, Larisa and Bell argue that last year’s actions by state lawmakers are insufficient to authorize sports betting. In 1994, the complaint says, the state constitution was amended to address the expansion of gambling, requiring pre-approval by voters for two different reasons: an expansion in the types of gambling at an existing venue and the addition of venues into new locations. Moreover, the constitution says such expansions require approval of a majority of voters statewide, and in the city or town where the expansion takes place.
Quoting Article 6, Section 22 of the document, the suit says, “No act expanding the types or locations of gambling which are permitted within the state or within any city or town therein or expanding municipalities in which a particular form of gambling is authorized shall take effect until it has been approved by the majority of those electors voting in a statewide referendum and by the majority of the electors voting in said referendum in the municipality in which the proposed gambling would be allowed.”
The suit says the state followed the proper procedure before adding table games at the Lincoln facility. The General Assembly passed a law in 2011 that required state and local referendums in Lincoln, and also in Newport in attempts to accommodate the former Newport Grand casino. Voters approved in Lincoln, but not in Newport, in 2012. Newport rejected the idea again when given the opportunity to reconsider two years later. Another referendum followed in 2016, paving the way for Twin River to expand into Tiverton.
To find the only legal argument ever advanced to justify the debut of sports betting without a referendum, Larisa says, the state points to the 2011 amendment that ushered in table games in Lincoln, according to Larisa. The amendment to Section 42-61.2-1 attempts to authorize all forms of “Class III” gaming – a federal term that appears in the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. But Larisa says the federal law is moot in Rhode Island because there is no Indian gaming, and even if the law was applicable, it doesn’t mention anything about sports betting.
“It is this mention of Class III gaming that is the sole basis upon which Defendants contend that the new type of gambling in the form of sports betting was knowingly approved by Rhode Island voters,” the suit says. “The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act does not apply to any Indian Tribes in Rhode Island and has no applicability to Rhode Island.”
A close reading of the definition of Class III gaming in the federal code doesn’t define any type of gaming at all, the suit says. Rather, it defines Class III gaming as anything other than Class I or Class II gaming.
Class I includes “traditional forms of Indian gaming engaged in by individuals as part of, or in connection with, tribal ceremonies or celebrations,” the suit says. Class II games are generally defined as bingo and certain card games.
“Nowhere in the federal law referenced by the 2011 Act...is there any reference to sports wagering or sports betting, nor is there any reference to any regulation further defining Class III gaming,” the suit says.
In a statement, Harrop, the plaintiff, said the lawsuit is about holding the government accountable.
“The General Assembly and the governor have refused to follow our state constitution by seeking voter approval before expanding gambling in the form of sports gambling,” he said. “This is a good government issue. If one provision of our constitution is disregarded, then none is safe.”
No date has been set for a hearing on the suit. But Harrop is asking a Superior Court judge for an order halting the continued operation of sports betting until, and unless, it is approved by voters in accord with the procedures established by Section 6, Article 22 of the state constitution. He’s also seeking a similar order prohibiting the state from venturing into online sports betting.
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo