NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey's bid to legalize sports gambling has endured defeat after defeat in the courts, but one big winner has emerged, at taxpayer expense — the law firm hired to help Gov. Chris Christie defend a lawsuit filed by the four major pro sports leagues and the NCAA.
The firm — Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher — is the same one Christie hired, also with public money, to investigate the George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal that is plaguing his administration.
According to figures obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request, Gibson Dunn billed the state for $2.8 million in fees between August 2012, when the leagues sued to stop Christie from going ahead with his plan to issue sports gambling licenses, and the end of 2013.
The total amount to be borne by taxpayers will be higher when other attorneys' fees are added; for example, former Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver and former Senate President Steve Sweeney became part of the case in November 2012, but information on their fees was not available from the attorney general's office.
"We have an $800 million budget deficit," said state Sen. Shirley Turner, one of the few lawmakers to vote against amending the New Jersey Constitution in 2012 to allow sports gambling. "We don't have the money to spend on something on which the odds were long. It could have been better spent for so many other things, to help people in the state who need the help."
The firm's fees come atop hundreds of thousands of dollars it is anticipated to bill the state for the traffic-jam investigation, according to media reports. The legislature has also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars investigating.
Neither a spokesman for Christie nor the law firm responded to requests for comment from The Associated Press.
The state's last chance for the gambling case is for the U.S. Supreme Court to take it up, a decision that could come this month.
Over the past two years, Christie and other lawmakers have boldly predicted that New Jersey's efforts would result in a landmark ruling that would legalize sports gambling in New Jersey and help revive the state's struggling casino industry. But some legal experts considered the case a long shot from the start, given that it would require overturning the federal Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, a 1992 law that restricted sports gambling to Nevada and three other states that already offered betting pools.
"This is not an issue for the courts; it's for the Congress to sort out, and Congress probably needs to sort it out," said Jeremy Frey, a Philadelphia-based lawyer who is an expert in gambling law. "It's not to say that it's not worth doing — but it's a loser."
Frey's words echo those of U.S. District Judge Michael Shipp, who wrote in an opinion last year rejecting New Jersey's arguments that "to the extent the people of New Jersey disagree with PASPA, their remedy is not through passage of a state law or through the judiciary, but through the repeal or amendment of PASPA in Congress."
That route has proved difficult. Separate sports gambling bills introduced in 2012 by New Jersey Reps. Frank Pallone and Rep. Frank LoBiondo have stalled in committee, though both men have said they remain committed to the cause.
Shipp's ruling was upheld on appeal by the 3rd U.S. Circuit in Philadelphia in a 2-1 decision last fall. The court later denied a request to have the matter reheard by the full 3rd Circuit. That has left the Supreme Court as the last resort.
Some legal experts feel New Jersey's chances to have the case heard improved when the Supreme Court last year struck down a part of the Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of voter discrimination to get Washington's approval before changing election processes.
In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg mentioned the 1992 sports gambling law and appeared to question whether it and other laws that treat some states differently from others might be in jeopardy.