Sports Wagering – An Established Rhode Island Casino Game

By Tyler Charlton, Emory Law 3L
In November 1994, the voters of Rhode Island approved a constitutional provi-
sion designed to restrict gambling within the state. Under the state’s new constitu-
tional provision, article 6, section 22, a majority of “electors voting in a statewide
referendum” must authorize any new type, or types, of gambling. In addition, the provision stated that a majority of voters in the particular municipality must approve the legislation via a local referendum. Approximately 20 years later, this constitutional provision was amended to further restrict gambling by requiring a vote on any new
gambling locations as well.

Even with the state’s constitutional mechanism in place, the Rhode Island General Assembly expanded gambling, in two, separate ways. In 2011 and 2016, legislation was passed that authorized “state-operated casino gaming” at Twin River-Lincoln Casino and Tiverton Casino Hotel (also owned by Twin River), respec-
tively. Each act of legislation (collectively titled the Casino Gaming Acts) received
the requisite number of votes and went into effect. In addition to the Casino Gaming
Acts, Rhode Island’s General Assembly also passed the 2018 Sports Wagering
Legislation and the 2019 Online Sports Wagering Legislation (collectively, the Sports Wagering Acts). The Sports Wagering Acts, however, did not proceed through the established process of voter approval via a state and local referendum. As such, their enactment became the basis of litigation. Specifically, Plaintiff Daniel Harrop alleged the Sports Wagering Acts violated the Rhode Island Constitution. For this reason, Plaintiff moved for summary judgment and sought a declaratory judgment to declare these acts as unconstitutional.

In response to Plaintiff’s motion,

Defendants raised two objections to sum-
mary judgment. They were as follows: (1)

Plaintiff’s claim is not justiciable; and (2)
Plaintiff is estopped from challenging the
constitutionality of article 6, section 22.

As threshold issues, the Court individu-
ally addressed each objection prior to

analyzing Plaintiff’s constitutional argu-
ment. The Court found neither argument

With regard to justiciability, the Court
articulated that two requirements must
necessarily be met. The first requirement
is that a plaintiff must have standing.
Previously, the Court already found that
Plaintiff had standing and consequently
declined to revisit the issue. The second
component requires that “the plaintiff …
have some ‘legal hypothesis which will
entitle the plaintiff to real and articulable
relief.’” Although such relief typically
comes in the form of damages, the Court
held there was a justiciable controversy

because Plaintiff requested both declara-
tory and injunctive relief. Upon finding

a justiciable controversy, the Court next
considered the issue of estoppel. Here,

the Court simply deferred to the hold-
ings of the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

Specifically, the (state’s) Supreme Court
had never applied this estoppel doctrine

in any context other than in administra-

and zoning matters.2

As a result, the

Court declined to extend the doctrine to
the present matter.

After resolving the threshold issues, the
Court moved to the principal arguments
and considered the constitutionality of the
Sports Wagering Acts. The Court used a

two-step approach, which involved deter-
mining whether: (1) sports wagering is a

type of casino gaming and (2) the 2012 and
2016 referenda gave Rhode Island voters
“fair notice” that they were authorizing
sports wagering. The Court also analyzed
whether the 2019 Online Sports Wagering
Legislation impermissibly expanded the
locations of gambling.
In considering the first aspect of the
constitutional issue, the Court determined
that sports wagering constitutes a form of
casino gaming. The Court arrived at this
conclusion for two reasons. First, under
the Casino Gaming Acts, casino gaming

is explicitly defined to encompass “casino-
style games played with … equipment,

for money.” Under the Sports Wagering
Acts, sports wagering is clearly played
with equipment and for money, which
places it squarely within the definition
of casino gaming. Secondarily, federal
regulations explicitly provide that sports
betting is included in Class III gaming.
Because sports wagering is a type of Class
III gaming, which is considered a form

of casino gaming, sports betting was ef-
fectively authorized through approval of

the Casino Gaming Acts.

Having determined that sports wager-
ing falls within the definition of casino

gaming, the Court proceeded to the
second step of the analysis. As an initial
matter, the Court determined that both

the public referendum and ballots com-
plied with statutory requirements. Next,

the Court considered the fair notice
requirement. In general, a referendum
is required to accurately present the
question or issue and apprise the citizen

enough so they may make an intelligent

and informed decision. However, fair no-
tice does not necessarily mean that every

detail or ramification is explained. Here,

the Court held that the Referenda Ques-
tions and Handbooks utilized language

indicating the list of table games in the
legislation was non-exhaustive. As such,
the provided definition of casino gaming
did not preclude sports wagering and
consequently provided “fair notice.” The
Court also noted that voters are presumed
to know the law. The Court determined
voters were provided ample information
to understand that sports wagering would
be authorized through approval of the
Casino Gaming Acts.
Finally, the Court analyzed a secondary
constitutional issue created by the 2014

amendment to the constitutional provi-
sion. Plaintiff argued the 2019 Online

Sports Wagering Legislation permitted
gambling in various new locations through

creation of a “virtual casino,” which con-
sequently required voter approval under

the Constitution. The Court, however,
articulated that all sports wagers servers
were located at either of the Twin River
Facilities. As a result, no gambling activity
occurred outside of legislatively approved

locations and thus there was no constitu-
tional violation.

In conclusion, the Court determined

the Sports Wagering Acts were constitu-
tional and dismissed Plaintiff’s motion for

summary judgment.

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