Rhode Islander’s Lawsuit To Block Legal Sports Betting Could Backfire

Written By Derek Helling on June 10, 2020 - Last Updated on June 15, 2020

A Rhode Island man trying to halt legal sports betting may unintentionally open the state to more forms of online gambling. That’s if his appeal of a Rhode Island sports betting lawsuit goes poorly.

A decision by RI’s highest court in favor of the defendants could set a strong precedent. It would fly in the face of the plaintiff’s argument.

What’s the deal with the RI sports betting lawsuit?

When Rhode Island legalized sports betting, it did so with a legislative act. The plaintiff in this litigation, Daniel Harrop, of Providence, took offense at the measure.

He filed suit against the state government, arguing that the law is unconstitutional. He maintains that the RI Constitution says that voters must approve any expansion to legal gambling.

The Providence Superior Court initially dismissed his complaint, stating he had no standing to bring the claim because the already ongoing wagering had done him no actual harm. Harrop wasn’t defeated, however.

He later returned to the court with proof that he had lost money on a wager that he should never have been able to place. That gave him sufficient standing and the court proceeded.

Last week, the Providence Superior Court dismissed his case again. Judge Brian Stern ruled that when the state’s voters approved casino gaming in 2012, they allowed the legislature to expand upon those offerings.

Because all legal RI sports betting runs through the state’s two casinos, even the online wagering, Stern saw it as another offering by those operators. Again, Harrop hasn’t ceded defeat, however.

Harrop’s next step in his crusade

Harrop said he will play the only card he has left, and appeal to the RI Supreme Court.

Last week, Harrop insinuated that Judge Stern might have had personal ambitions in his ruling:

“Yes, already in the works. We always expected this would [go] to the Supreme Court in Rhode Island. It’s a tough pull for a Superior Court judge (who might like to be a Supreme Court judge at some point) to find errors in the actions of the governor (who nominates Supreme Court judges) and the General [Assembly] (that confirms such). The supremes do not have that personal issue.”

It’s unclear when the RI Supreme Court will hear the case. Until then, legal wagering continues in RI without much regard for Harrop’s complaint.

Just like at the Superior Court level, Harrop will ask the RI Supreme Court for two things.

First, he wants the court to halt all legal wagering in the state.

Secondly, he wants the court to force the state to hold a referendum on whether to allow legal sports betting. The court could grant his request on the referendum without issuing an order to temporarily cease betting, grant both requests, dismiss Harrop’s complaint or rule in the defendants’ favor.

However, if the court finds for the defendants, it could affect much more than just legal wagering in RI. It may open the door for more online gambling.

Supreme Court precedents are strong

At the federal or state level, a decision by the Supreme Court does more than decide immediate disputes. Such rulings also act as precedents to guide parties on future matters.

If the RI Supreme Court rules strongly enough for the defendants, it could create a strong precedent that the RI assembly and governor have the authority to expand legal gambling without voter approval. That could come into play if the state ever considers online slots and electronic versions of casino table games.

In theory, as long as those games operating at the state’s two casinos, it would be no different than online sports wagering. Harrop’s complaint could be the catalyst for creating this scenario.

There’s no public push for more gambling expansion now, but that may change. If the casinos in RI ever do offer online slot play, they may have Harrop to thank for that.

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Derek Helling

Derek Helling is a lead writer for PlayUSA and the manager of BetHer. 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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