OPINION: An opinion from Justice Melton, this time for a paying client

On Wednesday morning at the Capitol, dozens, maybe hundreds, of lobbyists stood in the corridors of the state Capitol waiting to press their clients’ cases as lawmakers hurried by.

But one of the most influential voices on the controversial topic of legalized gambling this session has not been a lobbyist at all. Instead, it’s been Harold Melton, the former Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court. Melton recently authored a memo now being circulated among lawmakers that outlines how the General Assembly could legalize sports betting without amending the state Constitution, which prohibits gaming.

In practical terms, Melton wrote that sports betting could operate as a part of the Georgia Lottery. That minor change in state law could pass with a simple majority vote in the General Assembly, instead of a two-thirds vote required for a constitutional amendment, followed by a statewide ballot initiative for Georgia voters to decide.

“It is my opinion that it is possible to legalize sports gambling through standard legislation by changing the definition of lotteries…to include sports betting,” he wrote.

Melton’s interest in the matter now, just as the General Assembly starts its new session, is not a coincidence. He was hired by the Metro Atlanta Chamber last year to review the legal issues associated with legalizing sports betting and produce an opinion about them.

The Metro Chamber has made sports betting a priority for this legislative session. Along with commissioning new polling on the issue, the Melton memo has become a novel piece of the expansive lobbying effort to finally make it legal after years of trying.

Looking for a new angle in the same old conversation, the Metro Chamber said they sought out Melton specifically. The highly respected former chief justice joined the Troutman Pepper law firm in 2021 after 16 years on the state Supreme Court.

“Justice Melton has always had a great reputation and is respected on both sides of the aisle,” said Marshall Guest, the head of public affairs for the chamber. “We believe that his opinion has had a significant impact on the conversation at the state capitol thus far.”

Melton said he is not a registered lobbyist and is not technically lobbying on the gambling issue. But in addition to the memo, he is also meeting with lawmakers and staff in the Capitol to discuss his legal opinion. He declined to elaborate in a formal interview because of client confidentiality rules.

That Melton has been paid as a part of the Metro Chamber’s lobbying effort does not change the impact of the 10-page opinion he wrote, Guest said.

“Someone like Justice Melton, he’s not going to put his name on something that he hasn’t researched and believes in,” Guest said.

Before Melton’s years on the Georgia Supreme Court, he was also executive counsel to then-Gov. Sonny Perdue and a staff attorney to the state Attorney General. In short, Melton has spent more time in state government than most lawmakers have been at the Capitol — and longer than some lawmakers have been alive.

So it’s no surprise that hallway conversations about the chances of any kind of gambling bill this year invariably go to the Melton memo, as they did at the Capitol this week.

“What’s going to happen with sports betting?” I asked a senior GOP senator.

“I don’t know, but I heard you don’t need an amendment to do it,” he said. A former House member standing nearby chimed in, “Wasn’t that Melton who said that?”

Lobbyists pushing for casino and pari-mutuel betting in Georgia this year openly grouse about the Melton memo. It’s opened the door for lawmakers to take another look at sports betting, but not other forms of gambling.

That’s just fine with the Metro Chamber, which is working with Atlanta’s professional sports teams, including the Braves and the Falcons, who say plenty of bets are being placed on their games, just not in Georgia.

But Mike Griffin, the lobbyist for the Georgia Baptist Convention, which opposes any expansion of gambling, is telling lawmakers that greenlighting sports betting here will only “put gas on the fire.”

“We’ve already got people who are betting on sports illegally, I understand that,” he said. “But it will be exponentially worse if there’s this attempt to regulate it and tax it. It will simply make it more available.”

And he said that while Melton’s voice undoubtedly has influence, the real question is whether the opinion he wrote is accurate.

“I have concerns about whether or not that will really hold up in court,” Griffin said. “We’ve already seen this in the past with other legislation, where when they passed it and it was challenged in court, it could then be tied up for three to five years and it still wouldn’t happen.”

That scenario will be on the minds of lawmakers, who are expected to consider as many as half a dozen gaming bills.

A Senate bill was introduced Wednesday that would legalize sports betting and fixed-odds horse racing through the Georgia Lottery. It would require a simple majority vote.

A separate House bill, expected any day, is designed to mirror Melton’s recommendations, with a proposal to approve sports betting through the Lottery.

More bills with casino gambling and race tracks are expected, too, even though the state constitution explicitly prohibits both unless its amended.

What happens with those bills, or a final combination of their parts, is anyone’s guess. But don’t bet that any side will find a voice as influential as Melton’s to issue an opinion.