Last month, federal prosecutors in Nevada filed a motion to dismiss an indictment that shined a bright light on overly broad federal criminal statutes and the abuse of prosecutorial discretion in using them.
John Kane and Andre Nestor were each charged in an indictment in January 2011 with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of computer fraud in violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), the same law that was used to prosecute Internet activist Aaron Swartz and Andrew Auernheimer.
The indictment alleged that Kane and Nestor used an exploit on video poker machines to defraud casinos and win money that they were not entitled to, which “exceeded their authorized access” on the machines in violation of the CFAA. Kane, who reportedly spent an extremely significant amount of time playing video poker, discovered a bug in the software of the video poker machine that allowed for him, and later his co-defendant Nestor, to achieve large payouts on certain slot machines through a series of moves where he switched games and made bets at different levels. There is absolutely nothing illegal about pressing buttons on slot machines to change the amount of money you are betting or to switch games you are playing, but the prosecution alleged that doing this exceeded lawful access. The court agreed with the defendants and ruled in favor of their motion to dismiss the CFAA count in the indictment.
The CFAA was enacted in 1986 to protect computers that there was a compelling federal interest in protecting, such as computers owned by the federal government and certain financial institutions. The CFAA has been amended numerous times since it was enacted to cover a broader range of computer related activities and there has been recent discussion on Capitol Hill of amending it further. The CFAA prohibits accessing a computer without proper authorizationor it is used in a manner that exceeds the scope of authorized access. The law has faced steep criticism for being overly broad and allowing prosecutors wide discretion by allowing them to charge individuals who have violated a website’s terms of service.
In November, after filing nine stipulations to continue the trial date, the government filed a motion to dismiss the remaining conspiracy to commit wire fraud charges against both Kane and Nestor because “the government has evaluated the evidence and circumstances surrounding court one [wire fraud conspiracy] and determined that in the interest of justice it should not go forward with the case under the present circumstances.”
Although the charges were ultimately dismissed,the issue remains that these charges never should have been brought in the first place. Kane and Nestor had to deal with open criminal charges against them for nearly three years. There are proper uses for statutes such as the CFAA, but the people and the courts should demand that the government only use them for their intended purposes. Prosecutions taking broad and unjustified interpretations of these statutes are not justified.
Cybersecurity, Federal Criminal (Other), Federal Criminal Procedure, Fraud, White-collar crime
A recent D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals decision narrows the ability of the government to revisit uncharged crimes against a person whose plea has been vacated due to a change in the law.
In 2007, Russell Caso had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit honest-services wire fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 371, 1343 and 1346, based on certain conduct during his employment as U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon’s chief of staff. Caso was sentenced to three years’ probation, including a 170-day term of home confinement. In entering its plea agreement with Caso, the government had forgone the right to charge Caso also with a violation of the false statements statute for failing to include certain payments on his annual disclosure statement required by virtue of his status as a federal employee.
Shortly after Caso was sentenced, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Skilling v. United States, 130 S. Ct. 2896 (2010) – a decision that substantially limited the permissible reach of Section 1346, the honest-services fraud statute – with the result that Caso was indisputably innocent of the crime for which he was charged and convicted. The government did not dispute this point but nevertheless opposed Caso’s motion to vacate his conviction.
The government argued that Caso had procedurally defaulted his Skilling challenge because he had not directly appealed his conviction on the ground that the conduct to which he pleaded did not constitute an offense, and therefore was barred from raising this issue on a habeas petition. The government also argued that Caso had failed to satisfy the narrow conditions for excusing such a default that the Supreme Court set out in Bousley v. United States, 523 U.S. 614 (1998): (1) “cause” for the default and “actual prejudice” resulting therefrom; or (2) that the defendant is “actually innocent.”
In denying Caso’s petition (which argued only the second of these exceptions), the District Court agreed with the government, and focused on the Bousley Court’s rule that, “[i]n cases where the Government has forgone more serious charges in the course of plea bargaining, petitioner’s showing of actual innocence must also extend to those charges.” (emphasis added) Based on that rule, the District Court held that Caso had to demonstrate his “actual innocence” not only of the crime for which he was charged and convicted (honest-services wire fraud) but also of the separate uncharged offense of making a false statement, a crime that the government argued was at least equally serious as the honest-services fraud charge. Because Caso could not show his actual innocence of the false statement charge in light of the admissions he made as part of his plea agreement, the District Court denied his motion to vacate his conviction and sentence.
The D.C. Circuit reversed this decision based its reading of what constitutes “more serious charges” under Bousley. In doing so, the appeals court rejected the government’s argument that seriousness is to be determined based on the statutory maximum sentence for each crime, and found it far more logical to base the question of seriousness on the way in which each crime is treated in the United States Sentencing Guidelines. Quoting the Supreme Court’s Gall decision, the court noted that Guidelines calculations are still “the starting point and initial benchmark” for every sentencing decision and that “district courts must begin their analysis with the Guidelines and remain cognizant of them throughout the sentencing process.”
The court also noted that the United States Attorneys’ Manual, in directing prosecutors to charge “the most serious offense that is consistent with the nature of the defendant’s conduct,” explains that “[t]he ‘most serious’ offense is generally that which yields the highest range under the sentencing guidelines.”
The court also noted that statutory maxima provide the parties with little useful information in the context of plea negotiations, in part because courts rarely sentence defendants to the statutory maxima. Because the Guidelines treat a violation of the false statements statute less seriously than honest-services fraud, the Court of Appeals held that the forgone false statement charge was not “more serious,” and that Caso need not show his innocence of that charge to support his claimed right to vacating of his conviction for honest services fraud.
The fact that that the D.C. Circuit relied upon the Guidelines as the justification for its ruling is particularly interesting given that recent attacks on the reasonableness of some of the Guidelines (particular the Section 2B1.1 loss tables) have sapped the Guidelines of some of their authority. It is possible that this ruling could change the way in which prosecutors structure their pleas, but circumstances such as this one, in which a defendant is found innocent of convicted charges because of a change in the law, are rare enough that this is not likely. To the extent that courts face similar cases, they will have to address issues left unresolved by the D.C. Circuit, such as whether there must be contemporaneous evidence that prosecutors considered the forgone charge at the time, and whether a crime of “equal seriousness” (and not “more serious”) falls within the Bousley rule.
White-collar crime can involve any number of types of fraud against the government or private parties. One that isn’t usually thought about but can result in serious jail time involves conspiracies to obtain government contracts fraudulently by setting up bogus small and minority-owned businesses in order to qualify for government preferences.
In the past few months in the Eastern District of Virginia, several businesspeople have been sentenced to serve time in prison after pleading guilty to their roles in a scheme that improperly won them more than $31 million in government contracts that were intended for small, minority-owned businesses but were diverted fraudulently to other businesses that didn’t qualify.
In June, businessman Joseph Richards was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison after he pleaded guilty to his role in the scheme. He was the first major participant to be sentenced.
Richards and his co-conspirators were gaming the system and abusing the federal program that provides so-called 8(a) set-asides for minority businesses. As outlined in a statement of facts to which Richards stipulated, he and the co-conspirators set up “Company B,” a shell company owned by a woman named Dawn Hamilton, who is of Portuguese descent and thus eligible for the set-aside. However, Hamilton was only a figurehead owner, and “Company A,” run by Richards and other non-minority individuals, actually did the work on the government contracts. Earlier this month, Hamilton was sentenced to four years in federal prison.
For example, the memorandum states: “From 2009 until at least February 2012, when [Hamilton] began to work more frequently for Company B, Richards knew that [Hamilton] nevertheless reported to [co-conspirator Keith Hedman], who controlled Company B notwithstanding [Hamilton’s] “on-paper” Company B ownership. Richards also knew that [Hedman] kept a stamp of [Hamilton’s] signature in [Hedman’s] desk drawer and that [Hedman] repeatedly used the stamp to forge [Hamilton’s] name and signature on various documents, including checks and other documents submitted to the U.S. government.” Hedman, the ringleader of the scheme, was sentenced to six years in prison.
In order to make their scheme work, Richards and his co-conspirators repeatedly created fraudulent documents, including fraudulent leases and false responses to government inquiries about their 8(a) status.
These guilty pleas and sentences are indications that federal prosecutors are capable of going after government contract fraud in a concerted manner. The investigation that landed these guilty pleas, among others, was conducted by a large inter-agency team, including the offices of inspector general of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Small Business Administration, the General Services Administration, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, with assistance from the Defense Contract Audit Agency.
The fact that the companies involved actually performed the work satisfactorily for various government agencies is, of course, no defense. It is a basic type of fraud to make false representations to obtain benefits – in this case government contracts – to which one is not entitled by law.
Of course, it’s pretty clear that for every one of these scams that are investigated by authorities and end in guilty pleas, there must be five or ten that are never found out. If the Small Business Administration and other agencies got wind of more of these conspiracies, they could do more to ensure that truly deserving companies received these set-aside contracts.
When is a committee not a committee? When it is a subcommittee.
More than just a punchline, this is one of the key facts that led a U.S. district judge recently to dismiss charges against an employee of British Petroleum arising from his statements made in response to inquiries from a Congressional subcommittee regarding the BP Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
In United States v. David Rainey, the defendant was charged inter alia with a violation of Title 18, United States Code section 1505, which criminalizes the obstruction of “the due and proper exercise of the power of inquiry under which any inquiry or investigation is being had by either House, or any committee of either House or any joint committee of the Congress.” The charges against Rainey were based upon allegedly false statements that he made to the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment of the Committee on Energy and Commerce. One basis on which the defendant sought to dismiss the charge against him was the argument that the statute does not include the term “subcommittee” and therefore did not apply to his conduct.
In granting Rainey’s motion to dismiss, U.S. District Judge Kurt D. Engelhardt of the Eastern District of Louisiana emphasized that, “where a criminal defendant’s strict reading of a criminal statute is reasonable, the court is not free to choose among reasonable interpretations the version that (in the court’s view) represents better policy or better accomplishes a perceived broad congressional purpose.” The Court noted that a generic reading of the term “committees” would include subcommittees, as the government argued, but that “[w]ithin Congress, the terms ‘committee’ and ‘subcommittee’ have distinct meanings” and are “terms of art.” Because the Court could not “say with certainty” that Congress intended section 1505 to reach subcommittee inquiries, the Court dismissed the charge under that statute relating to Rainey’s statements to the subcommittee.
To the extent that Congress pursues investigative inquiries through its subcommittees, the Rainey case obviously provides a cautionary tale for prosecutors who seek to bring criminal charges based on the conduct of those who respond to those inquiries. Given that the purpose of Congressional inquiries is not specifically to entrap individuals in criminal conduct, this ruling – even if followed by other courts – is not likely to change the way in which Congress pursues its inquiries. The case is notable, however, as an excellent example of careful parsing of a criminal statute that may be useful to defense counsel seeking to apply the same rule of lenity to other criminal statutes.
On May 31, the House Committee on Judiciary Over-Criminalization Task Force will begin a six-month investigation to determine whether the U.S. Code over-criminalizes relatively minor conduct. The bipartisan task force, composed of five Republicans and five Democrats, will conduct hearings and review thousands of federal criminal statutes for purposes of recommending consensus-based improvements to federal criminal law.
Legislators of all political stripes recognize the need for reform. Experts estimate that the U.S. Code contains 4,500 federal crimes and up to 300,000 regulations that provide for the imposition of criminal penalties. One-third of all federal criminal statutes were added to the U.S. Code within the last 30 years. This recent explosion in federal criminal law has added significant costs for prosecution, resolution, and incarceration. Sometimes Congress enacts new laws that overlap with existing state law, thus transferring enforcement costs from the states to the federal government.
Over-criminalization also burdens individuals. Indeed, the labyrinth of federal criminal statutes and regulations seriously undermines a basic tenet of criminal law — that people should have fair notice of what is against the law. Stories abound to show that the presumption can be as unrealistic as the real-world consequences are devastating:
• In 2003, Texas senior citizen George Norris was indicted in Miami for importing mislabeled orchids in violation of an international treaty as implemented by the Endangered Species Act. After pleading guilty to the charges, Norris was sentenced to 17 months in prison — part of which he served in solitary confinement — and two years of supervised release. He was also ordered to pay an assessment of $700. Although he had no prior record, the orchid-gardener-turned-felon cannot vote, own a gun, or keep alcohol in his home.
• In 2007, Lawrence Lewis was charged with discharging pollutants in violation of the Clean Water Act. Formerly the chief engineer at a military retirement home near D.C., Lewis made the ill-advised but well-intentioned decision to divert backed-up sewage into an outside storm drain to prevent flooding in an area where the military home’s most vulnerable residents lived. Lewis mistakenly believed that the storm drain emptied into a waste-treatment facility; instead, the drain emptied into a creek that feeds the Potomac River. Lewis decided the risks associated with fighting the charge were too great, so he pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to probation and ordered to pay a $2,500 fine.
• In 2011, 11-year old Skylar Capo rescued a baby woodpecker near Fredericksburg, Va. Two weeks later, an employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service traveled to the girl’s home to cite her for violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail, a fine, or both. The federal agent confirmed that Skylar had already released the bird and canceled the citation. But the automated system processed the citation anyway, so Skylar received a notice requiring her to pay a $535 fine and threatening possible jail time. Although the Fish and Wildlife Service apologized for the error, the case illustrates the potential for abuse that exists due to over-criminalization.
No doubt, the task force will investigate ways to minimize such absurd results. It remains to be seen whether the investigation will produce meaningful change. On one hand, there is reason for hope: efforts to address over-criminalization have broad support among Republicans, Democrats, and a diverse coalition of groups including the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the American Bar Association.
On the other hand, history suggests that change will not come easy. The House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security conducted a hearing on over-criminalization almost four years ago, but congressional efforts to address the problem never gained traction. For example, current Task Force member Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) is a sponsor of the Criminal Code Modernization and Simplification Act, which would reduce the federal criminal code by one-third and otherwise consolidate and streamline federal criminal law.
Sensenbrenner introduced versions of the bill in 2006, 2007, 2009, and 2011, but none was enacted. He reportedly intends to reintroduce the bill this year. If the task force and its supporters are able to raise awareness of how over-criminalization burdens society and individual liberties, legislators on both sides of the aisle may find the political capital they need to get something done.
In a recent decision, U.S. District Judge Susan Illston of the Northern District of California struck down the FBI’s use of National Security Letters (NSLs) as unconstitutional. Unbeknownst to most Americans, the FBI has been issuing thousands of NSLs every year. The letters demand that recipients, such as banks and telephone companies, provide customers’ information such as their transactional records, phone numbers dialed, and email addresses mailed to and from. This doesn’t involve the content of the phone calls or emails but does involve the names of addressees or participants. One reason most Americans didn’t know about these letters is because more than 95 percent of them contain gag orders, barring the recipient from disclosing their content or even their existence.
This case began nearly two years ago, in May 2011, when a nonprofit advocacy group, the Electric Frontier Foundation (EFF), filed suit on behalf of an unnamed telecom company that had received an NSL. In defense of the NSLs, the government argued that this level of secrecy is necessary to protect the nation against potential security threats. NSLs were designed in the 1970s as a means to gather information on suspected foreign spies during terrorism and espionage investigations. However, the Patriot Act greatly expanded their reach to allow the FBI to secretly compel companies to provide data on American citizens.
The constitutionality of NSLs is dubious for two distinct reasons. Not only does the nondisclosure clause infringe on their recipients’ free speech, but, unlike a standard subpoena or search warrant, the NSLs do not have to be authorized by a judge. Accordingly, Illston concluded that NSLs and their nondisclosure provisions violate the First Amendment and separation of powers principles, and she ordered the FBI to stop issuing NSLs and cease enforcing all gag provisions. That said, we are uncertain whether Illston’s order will ever go into effect. Due to the gravity of the First Amendment and national security issues at stake, Illston issued a 90-day stay, giving the government time to appeal her decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
Although the lawsuit was filed anonymously, various media sources have suggested that the unnamed defendant may be Credo Mobile, a phone provider that supports progressive causes. The day after the ruling was released, Credo’s CEO Michael Kieschnick released the following statement:
“This decision is notable for its clarity and depth. From this day forward, the US government’s unconstitutional practice of using national security letters to obtain private information without court oversight and its denial of the first amendment rights of national security letter recipients have finally been stopped by our courts.”
According to Matt Zimmerman, an EFF attorney, the NSL gags “have truncated the public debate on these controversial surveillance tools,” and his unnamed client “looks forward to the day when it can publicly discuss the issue.”
As we await the higher court’s ruling, which we hope leaves Illston’s decision in place, one thing has already been accomplished of a positive nature. A federal district judge has shined some light on a little-known and highly dubious federal law enforcement technique.
What’s in a name?
When you think of identity theft, you typically think of someone taking a person’s name plus some other identifiers, like their address and Social Security number or credit card number, to go on a spending spree or drain the victim’s bank account. You may think of fraudulent impersonation. But what if someone falsely stated that another person gave him permission to use their joint property as collateral on a loan? That sounds like a false statement but not a case of stolen identity. Yet a federal district court in Tennessee found that just this scenario constituted identity theft in a current case against real estate broker David Miller.
Perhaps the court’s holding doesn’t sound too troubling. After all, identity theft is a crime and it’s clearly behavior that we want to deter. But expanding the reach of what may fall under the federal identity theft laws doesn’t really deter the behavior that Congress sought to address by statute. It just makes it harder to anticipate the bounds of the law, and that is troubling.
Congress passed the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998 in order to address the growing problem of fraudsters taking people’s personal information to either steal from their existing accounts or to run up debt in the victims’ names. The act criminalized fraud in connection with the theft and misuse of personal identifying information. (Before the law was passed, only fraud in connection with identification documents was a federal crime.) But there was some concern that prosecutors were not vigorously going after identity theft cases. So Congress passed the Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act of 2004. Again, this measure was aimed squarely at penalizing identity thieves who were attacking consumers’ financial accounts and credit. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. John Carter (R-Tex.), said identity theft is “a crime that we need to address and address seriously … for the protection of the credit of American citizens.”
Years later, the Department of Justice appears to have gotten the message and is actively prosecuting identity theft cases. All is well and good with the DOJ’s ordinary efforts in this area. On its website, the DOJ discusses identity theft issues in a familiar context, relating concerns over the misuse of “your Social Security number, your bank account or credit card number, your telephone calling card number, and other valuable identifying data.”
It also provides exemplary cases, which are again in keeping with the general understanding of what constitutes identity theft: (1) a woman pleaded guilty for using a stolen Social Security number to obtain thousands of dollars in credit and then filing for bankruptcy in the name of her victim; (2) a man pleaded guilty after obtaining private bank account information about an insurance company’s policyholders and using that information to deposit counterfeit checks; (3) a defendant was indicted on bank fraud charges for obtaining names, addresses, and Social Security numbers from a Web site and using those data to apply for a series of car loans over the Internet.
So with a pretty clear understanding of congressional intent and a fairly clear depiction of the scope of federal identity theft laws, it seems a bit like prosecutorial overreach for the DOJ to turn around and use these laws in a case like that against David Miller. Not in keeping with the sample cases above, Miller’s “theft” involved him “using the names of two individuals in a document that stated Miller had the authority to pledge real property as collateral for the loan when he had no such authority.” He was not trying to impersonate them to create new accounts or steal from their existing accounts. There are other laws to prosecute what Miller did – and he was found guilty of making false statements to a bank.
The concern here is that adding the identity theft count to Miller’s sentence is a misuse of the Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act and an overexpansion of what behavior falls under the rubric of identity theft. What is next? Will the department uses this law to prosecute those who lie about references on a job application?
The general rule is that criminal laws should be strictly construed in favor of the defendant. The ruling against Miller seems a case in point where the Rule of Lenity was not applied. Miller has appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which will hopefully bring the law back within its intended scope.
A Nevada man now has a criminal record – simply because he placed a bet in a casino in Las Vegas and a casino employee didn’t ask him enough questions.
Robert Walker recently pleaded guilty in federal court to one misdemeanor count involving a record-keeping violation and was sentenced to one year of unsupervised probation. He was also ordered to pay a $250 fine and agreed to forfeit a $32,400 bet he made in March 2011.
Walker was a member of Acme Trading Group, a company whose members placed bets for several years at a number of casinos on Acme’s behalf. Acme is structured in a way that allows individuals to invest in the company, and bets are made on behalf of the company.
Messenger betting is a crime under Nevada law that occurs when wagers are placed at sports books by individuals on behalf of others. Thus far, Acme Trading Group has not been prosecuted for messenger betting, although Walker and others have clearly been subject to law enforcement scrutiny.
In November 2011, Walker was indicted on four felony counts under 31 U.S.C. 5313(a) for causing a domestic financial institution to fail to file an accurate currency transaction report. Walker faced a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine if convicted of all charges.
The indictment alleged that on four occasions, Walker went to the Golden Nugget Casino Race & Sports Book and placed a bet of more than $10,000, and that when he was asked by the employee taking the bet if he was gambling on behalf of anyone else, he said that he was not.
Under federal law, all financial institutions, which include casinos, must file reports of any currency transactions over $10,000. The casino must also verify the name and the address of the individual placing the bet and the taxpayer identification information of the person on whose behalf the bet is being placed.
Walker’s attorneys contended in court filings that the burden is on the casinos, and not the individual bettor, to determine whether the individual is placing the bet on behalf of himself or a third party. Walker’s attorneys stated that Golden Nugget personnel never asked him if he was placing bets on behalf of someone else, and if they had asked him, he would have informed them that he was wagering on behalf of Acme. He had been instructed by his employer, he said, that if asked, he should reply to casino personnel that he was placing the bet on behalf of Acme.
Attorneys for Walker also stated in court papers that they hired an investigator who went to the Golden Nugget and engaged in at least seven transactions that required reporting under federal law. In none of those transactions did casino personnel ever ask the investigator if he was placing the wager for himself or on behalf of someone else.
This is a case that simply did not need to be prosecuted. Factually, there were very serious questions raised regarding the role that the casino played in trying to obtain the information necessary to file the reports and regarding the issue of who is responsible for making sure that information is reported.
Walker accepted a plea that would grant him a year of unsupervised probation; the indictment he was originally facing had a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. Walker now has a criminal record as the result of very aggressive and unnecessary prosecution. Is this the type of case that the government’s limited prosecutorial resources should be focused on?
On Friday, February 1, 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a brief in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey defending the constitutionality of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (PASPA), the hotly contested federal law that prohibits sports betting in most states. New Jersey is seeking to have the court find this law unconstitutional. A win for the state would have far-reaching ramifications by eliminating the primary hurdle that individual states have in implementing legal sports betting within their borders.
PASPA prohibits any state from offering sports betting unless that state had a sports betting scheme in place between 1976 and 1990. New Jersey had a one-year period to enact sports betting, but its legislature failed to act. Delaware, Oregon and Montana have limited sports betting schemes in place, and Nevada is the only state that is authorized to offer single-game sports betting under the law.
On January 22, DOJ announced that it planned to intervene in the lawsuit brought by the four major professional sports leagues and the NCAA challenging the New Jersey state law. DOJ could have brought a case when the law was initially passed, but chose not to.
The DOJ brief raises three main constitutional issues: the anti-commandeering principles of the Tenth Amendment, Congress’s power to regulate sports wagering under the Commerce Clause and the applicability of the uniformity and equal sovereignty principles under the Commerce Clause, and due process and equal protection clause issues under the Fifth Amendment.
DOJ argues in its brief that the anti-commandeering principle applies only when a federal statute requires specific, affirmative action by a state and that since PASPA does not require New Jersey to take any action but merely to refrain from starting a betting program, the principle is inapplicable.
New Jersey replies that the anti-commandeering principle does apply because a federal law is imposing constraints on the state. PASPA’s stated purpose is “to require States to govern according to Congress’ instructions.” The Supreme Court case that established the anti-commandeering principle, New York v. United States (1992), states that “the Constitution has never been understood to confer upon Congress the ability to require the States to govern according to Congress’ instructions.”
Additionally, under the Tenth Amendment, the power of the federal government is limited. Courts have typically viewed the ability to raise revenue, such as through gambling, as one of those rights reserved to the states. New Jersey has successfully regulated gambling for decades but has been prohibited from regulating sports betting simply because it did not have a betting scheme in place before enactment of PASPA over 20 years ago.
DOJ argues that PASPA is a valid exercise of federal power under the Commerce Clause because sports gambling has an effect on interstate commerce and PASPA is a rational method of achieving regulation of it. DOJ also does not give any credence to the argument that the law violates the principle of equal sovereignty.
New Jersey argues that the principle of equal sovereignty does apply under the Commerce Clause. The plain text of the Commerce Clause does not make clear that all states must be treated uniformly, but the state believes that the case law makes it applicable.
New Jersey argues that contrary cases cited by DOJ deal with regulations that fell unevenly on the states because of circumstances that were not spread through the country, largely based on geography. However, the rationale for allowing some states to authorize sports betting and not others was the pre-existing scheme in place before PASPA and nothing else. The grandfathering clause of PASPA has served to grant a monopoly to Nevada while discriminating against all other states. This federal government-sponsored monopoly denies to the states the equal sovereignty that they are guaranteed under the Constitution.
The DOJ brief states that the arguments that PASPA violates the due process and equal protection guarantees of the Fifth Amendment are inapplicable because they protect only “persons” and not states from actions of the federal government. New Jersey argues that the discrimination between the states that PASPA has produced, by essentially granting Nevada a monopoly on single games sports betting, rises to the level of “injurious character” as to violate due process. This is likely the weakest argument that the state is making, and the court will likely rule in favor of DOJ on this point.
When PASPA was being debated in Congress, DOJ sent a letter to then Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del.), then the Judiciary Committee chairman, discussing the views of DOJ on PASPA. The letter noted that determinations of how to raise revenue are typically left to the states and since PASPA was seeking to regulate how states generate revenue, “it raises federalism issues.” DOJ chose not to address that letter in its brief.
New Jersey and the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horseman’s Association will have an opportunity to file a reply brief with the court by February 8. Oral arguments on the constitutionality of PASPA will be held on February 14.
The arguments made in the DOJ brief, for the most part, have already been made by counsel for the sports leagues. However, it remains to be seen if the court will give the arguments more weight because they were made by the U.S. government.
If the court accepts any of the arguments made by New Jersey that PASPA is unconstitutional, then New Jersey will prevail. It remains to be seen how the court will rule, but the constitutionality of PASPA will surely be tested and the consequences of this ruling will be very far-reaching. Whichever side loses the battle in the district court will likely appeal, meaning it may be some time before it is settled whether New Jersey can proceed with its plan to implement sports betting.
The U.S. Department of Justice announced on January 22, 2013, that it plans to intervene in the lawsuit brought by the four major professional sports leagues and the NCAA challenging a New Jersey state law that legalized sports betting in the state.
The leagues have argued in court papers that the New Jersey law is invalid because it directly contravenes a 1992 federal law, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) that imposes a ban on sports betting unless the individual state had its own sports betting scheme in place between 1976 and 1990. New Jersey was given a one year window to put in place a sports betting scheme, but the legislature failed to act.
The DOJ has requested that it have until February 1 to respond to the two briefs that challenge the constitutionality of PASPA. The DOJ has also requested the opportunity to participate in oral argument on the constitutionality of PASPA on February 14.
A year ago, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed legislation allowing sports betting in New Jersey after it was approved by a 2-1 margin in a nonbinding voter referendum in November 2011.
The DOJ could have brought this lawsuit when the law was initially passed, but chose not to. Instead, the case was brought by the four major professional sports leagues and the NCAA. New Jersey has argued that the leagues lacked standing to bring the suit. However, last month, after briefs were filed an oral arguments were held, a district court judge in New Jersey ruled that the leagues do have standing to bring the suit.
When PASPA was being debated in Congress, the DOJ sent a letter to then Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del.), then the Judiciary Committee chairman, discussing the views of the DOJ on PASPA. The letter noted that determinations of how to raise revenue are typically left to the states and since PASPA was seeking to regulate how states generate revenue “it raises federalism issues.”
A successful outcome for New Jersey in this case would allow for other states to pursue legalized sports betting. We support New Jersey’s efforts to legalize sports betting and generate needed revenue and jobs for the state.