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U.S. Supreme Court Sports Betting Decision Pleases Arizona Tribes, Officials

A new ruling Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court could open the door to Arizonans legally betting for — or against — the Diamondbacks, the Cardinals and even the Wildcats, Sun Devils and Lumberjacks.

And it could mean more money for the state.

In a 6-3 decision, the justices struck down a 1992 federal law which dictated that most states cannot allow such wagering. The majority concluded that the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) is an unconstitutional move by Congress to tell states what they can and cannot legalize.

"This is positive news,'' Gov. Doug Ducey said on hearing of the decision.

In some ways, the timing of the ruling could not be better.

It comes as Ducey already is negotiating with tribes for "modernizing'' the gaming compacts that voters authorized in 2002, giving the tribes the exclusive right to operate certain forms of casino gambling. In exchange, the tribes give the state a share of the profits.

Those compacts begin to expire after 2022. And Ducey has made no secret he thinks there's a better deal to be had, with the state getting more cash. "This ruling gives Arizona options that could benefit our citizens and our general fund,'' the governor said.

Press aide Daniel Scarpinato said that specifically includes a possible trade-off. The tribes would get the right to take bets on sports and the state would revamp the gaming compacts for a bigger share of the take.

And Ducey, for his part, has not been averse to the idea of expanded gaming to help balance the budget. In fact, his original proposal to fund teacher raises included allowing the Arizona Lottery to start a keno game, a plan that was subsequently scrapped.

Odds are the tribes are interested, too.

"I think the Navajo Nation is very interested in sports betting and in finding ways to expand their casino offerings,'' said attorney Steven Hart, who represents the state's largest tribe. He noted that if the state legislature changed the law to allow sports betting, residents would be able to go to the Navajo casino near Flagstaff rather than drive to Las Vegas where it is currently legal.

Hart did expect the state of Arizona to come looking for a trade. "The state normally wants something in return, that’s for sure. And oftentimes it’s money that they’re looking for," he said.

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who had sided with New Jersey in its challenge to the federal law, called Monday's ruling a significant victory for states' rights. "What Congress did when they passed PASPA, they created unconstitutional law,'' he said. "And I'm glad the Supreme Court struck it down.''

Nothing in Monday's ruling changes anything right now. Sports betting remains a violation of federal law. And the voter-approved state gaming law limits the kinds of gaming that can take place at tribal casinos.

All the state Department of Gaming would say in a prepared statement is that it is "currently reviewing'' the Supreme Court ruling.

What the ruling does is open the door to changes. Brnovich said that is a decision for the governor and lawmakers.

But Brnovich, a former state gaming director and federal prosecutor, said he is not terribly concerned that a change in Arizona law would lead to a massive increase in sports gambling. He noted it was the major sports leagues for basketball, football, hockey and baseball that asked the Supreme Court to uphold the federal law, along with the National College Athletic Association.

"The reality is, it's already going on,'' Brnovich said. 

Nor was Brnovich terribly concerned with claims by professional and amateur sports leagues that an increased amount of dollars being wagered on the outcome of games will lead to a greater prospect of cheating, with major gamblers paying off coaches or players to "shave'' points to lose a game or win by a smaller margin than the betting line is predicting. Here, too, the attorney general said, billions of dollars already are being wagered, albeit illegally.

"So if someone's going to compromise the integrity of an athletic contest, they, quite frankly, can already do that,'' Brnovich said.

Conversely, he said, there may be benefits to having more of the sports wagering done through legitimate outlets.

"The point shaving scandal from the 1990s, that was uncovered as a result of the legal sports books in Las Vegas noticing aberrations in betting patterns,'' Brnovich said. "You could make a strong argument, I think, that if it's regulated and people are on top of it, whether it's the professional gamblers or it's the professional sports books, that they will be able to detect anomalies and irregular betting patterns much better than some rookie in a back alley,'' he said.

Bret Jaspers was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2017 to 2020.