By John Burton |
LITTLE SILVER — The future of Monmouth Park could rest in the hands of lawyer and Two River area resident Ronald J. Riccio as he prepares to offer arguments to the U.S. Supreme Court later this year.
Riccio, who lives in Little Silver, is continuing to prepare for his turn at what is often considered a highpoint of a legal career, getting to present a case before the nine members of the nation’s highest court, squaring off before some other heavy-hitting legal talent.
This will be his first appearance before the Supreme Court during his 47-year legal career, “So, this is very exciting,” he said.
“I think it would be safe to say,” offered Riccio, who is 71, “every lawyer would relish the opportunity to have a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.”
But, he stressed, this is quite a serious matter that has both constitutional importance and real world ramifications.
“So, this is not just some academic discussion on constitutional principles,” he maintained. “There are people who are depending on the successful outcome of this case and live with the threat of losing their livelihoods hanging over their heads every day.”
The case at hand concerns a longstanding legal battle over preventing New Jersey, and most other states, from allowing sports betting. Advocates for the Monmouth Park racetrack, including the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, one of the operators of Monmouth Park and Riccio’s client, have long stressed the track needs the infusion of cash that sports betting as an attraction would bring to the financially struggling racetrack.
He and the state’s legal representative are challenging the 1992 federal law, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, or PASPA. That law, ironically, was sponsored 25 years ago by then New Jersey’s Democratic U.S. Senator Bill “Dollar Bill” Bradley, a former professional basketball player. The law was enacted over concerns about the effects sports gambling would have on the integrity of the games and the public. The law, however, did exempt four states from the prohibition: Nevada, Oregon, Delaware and Montana.
In 2011, New Jersey voters approved a referendum to amend its constitution, allowing the Legislature to approve sports gambling at its casinos and at current and/or former racetracks in 2012.
But that law was successfully challenged in federal court by the National Football League (NFL), National Basketball Association (NBA), National Hockey League (NHL), Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). The issue has been going back and forth in the state Legislature, with the approval of bills allowing the process to move forward, and in the federal courts, where the leagues continued to win, stymieing state efforts.
Riccio has argued, and will continue to make the case in written briefs and in his planned oral arguments to the court, that this rises to a constitutional issue the highest court needs to address.
It boils down to state’s sovereignty, argues Riccio, who had taught constitutional law at Seton Hall Law School for 20 years, as well as serving as the school’s dean from 1988 to 1999. “What the federal government can’t do,” he said, “it can’t command the state to regulate the people in the states the way Congress wants the states to regulate them.” Under federal law that’s referred to as “commandeering,” forcing the state to take action it wouldn’t otherwise take. “Can the federal government dictate to the states how the states regulate their people?” is the issue at hand, he said. “And the answer is no,” according to Riccio, as it would violate the U.S. Constitution’s 10th Amendment. That amendment designates powers not specifically delegated to the federal government, nor prohibited by it, to the states.
The sports leagues have continued to argue that allowing sports betting jeopardizes the integrity of the games.
Representatives from the sports leagues did not immediately return calls and emails seeking comment for this story.
Riccio dismisses the leagues’ argument as “hypercritical,” “because of the way the leagues have conducted themselves.” He points to the fact that the former Oakland Raiders football team has plans to relocate to Las Vegas, Nevada, where betting on, or against, the team is legal; and that some of the sports leagues are now involved in fantasy leagues, where participants can bet on individual players.
The other issue at hand, Riccio said, is “the human element.”
“You’re talking about the entire equine industry in New Jersey that is going to get threatened, if not extinguished, if Monmouth Park had to shut down.” That includes the loss of the large number of jobs the track provides for its season, he warned.
Attendance at the storied racetrack has been in decline for a number of years, with track supporters maintaining the track’s inability to provide other attractions like casino-style gaming (which surrounding states have), or sports gambling, have made it that much harder to offer larger purses. They argue it also keeps the track from attracting top-tier horses and trainers, and by extension, customers. “And without the revenue that sports betting is expected to generate,” Riccio said, “it’s going to be very difficult for Monmouth Park to survive.”
In the final analysis, “It’s a doomsday scenario for the equine industry,” certainly for Monmouth County, as well as for much of the state, Riccio said, “if Monmouth Park does not survive.”
Riccio serves as general counsel for the McElroy, Deutch, Mulvaney and Carpenter law firm, which has offices in Tinton Falls as well as elsewhere in the state, in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Florida. He maintains his own practice but has retired from teaching at Seton Hall.
Riccio is being assisted by his colleague Elliot Berman and by Edward Hartnett, a constitutional law scholar who teaches at Seton Hall. But even with their help, Riccio conceded it is time consuming, preparing the needed briefs and getting ready to address the large number of amicus (“friend of the court”) briefs this case is expected to attract; to say nothing of the other formidable legal talent who will appear on this matter. New Jersey, which is supporting Riccio’s position, is being represented by Theodore Olsen, who was Solicitor General for President George W. Bush’s administration, and had argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of then-candidate Bush for Bush v. Gore, deciding the 2000 presidential election. Representing the leagues is Paul Clement, who had worked as Solicitor General for George W. Bush after Olsen’s departure. Clement had represented the NBA for labor negotiations during the contentious 2011 player lockout.
“The lawyering throughout this case has been excellent,” he noted. “At this point in time, working on the Supreme Court brief,” he said, “is constantly on my mind.”
Riccio and other lawyers will submit written briefs early this fall and, while oral arguments haven’t been formally scheduled yet, Riccio suspects it will be in late November or early December. He anticipates the court will render its decision in late spring 2018.
This article was first published in the August 3 – 10, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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