Ex-Georgia chief justice: Sports betting doesn’t require constitutional amendment

A constitutional amendment is not needed for the state to allow legal online sports betting and should be considered an extension of the lottery, in the opinion of former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold D. Melton.

Efforts to get the legislation through the General Assembly have picked up this year, with the Metro Atlanta Chamber asking Melton for his views on the constitutional legality of allowing sports betting.

Expanding gambling in Georgia has been difficult to do because it requires amending the state constitution — allowed only once two-thirds of each legislative chamber agrees to place it on a ballot and a majority of voters approve the change.

Melton says the constitutional amendment isn’t necessary.

“Based on my review of the relevant law, the original public meanings of applicable terms and the historical context of those terms, it is my opinion that sports betting can be legalized as a state-run lottery for educational purposes solely through legislative action,” Melton wrote in a 10-page memo obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

It’s been more than four years since the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door for states to legalize sports betting, and though there has been legislation introduced in every legislative session since, those efforts have failed to make it out of the Georgia Capitol.

Starting his second term, Gov. Brian Kemp has said he would work with legislative leaders this year on a measure to allow sports betting — something he previously opposed — and Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, when he was a state senator, sponsored legislation to make sports betting legal.

Opponents say any form of gambling is immoral, addictive and leads to crime, and they promise a fight.

Analysts in the Capitol have been inconsistent on whether the state constitution allows sports betting. In 2019, Legislative Counsel Director Rick Ruskell recommended passing a constitutional amendment to legalize sports betting, citing ambiguity in the state constitution’s definitions.

“It’s a roll of the dice. Are you willing to gamble?” Ruskell asked a panel of lawmakers studying the potential of gaming in the state. “The wise course, the safe course and in order to give the people of Georgia ... an opportunity to weigh in on the issue, would be to go through with a well-crafted constitutional amendment.”

In a 2020 legal opinion, Atlanta attorney Bruce Brown told an anti-gambling group that the law would not stand up to a constitutional challenge.

Since then, some lawmakers have said legal guidance would not be needed to allow sports betting while others maintain that it is necessary to amend the constitution. The Office of Legislative Counsel does not make its opinions public.

For years, lawmakers have said expanding gambling in the state would bolster Georgia Lottery-funded education programs such as the HOPE scholarship, which was established nearly 30 years ago. But disagreement over where the tax revenue generated from sports betting, or any legalized gambling, should go has also held the legislation up in recent years.

Last year, a Senate bill seemed primed to pass the General Assembly, but it was tanked at the last minute in the powerful House Rules Committee, which decides which bills are eligible for a vote.

Some members of that committee didn’t like the idea of money raised by taxes on sports gambling going toward needs-based scholarships for what state Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, called “gap funding,” when a student is accepted to college but is just a little short of the money needed to attend.

While Republicans hold a majority of the Legislature, some caucus members have refused to support any form of gambling. That means a push for a constitutional amendment would require bipartisan support to reach the two-thirds threshold — and Democrats have demanded needs-based scholarship funding be part of the equation.

Backers say Georgians illegally bet nearly $5 billion a year on sports. Georgians can pull up a sports betting website or app on their cellphone and place bets on games — most likely using overseas servers and skirting Georgia’s laws making the practice illegal.

A poll of Georgia voters that the Washington-based firm Cygnal released last month reported that 51% support sports betting if the revenue is earmarked for pre-K and higher education programs. Just 24% opposed the idea. And a 2020 poll by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that about 58% of Georgia voters support legalizing sports betting.

Marshall Guest, lobbyist with the Metro Atlanta Chamber, said the organization is bolstered by the broad public support for legalizing sports betting and is working to accomplish that this year.

“Former Chief Justice Melton is a renowned and respected jurist, and his legal opinion makes clear there is a pathway for the Legislature to legalize safe, secure sports betting this session, generating tens of millions of dollars for education in the process,” Guest said.