Former Georgia Chief Justice: Sports Betting Doesn’t Require Constitutional Amendment

Posted on: January 18, 2023, 04:36h. 

Last updated on: January 18, 2023, 05:25h.

Georgia’s former chief justice, who oversaw the state’s highest judicial authority, doesn’t think a constitutional amendment is needed to authorize gambling on sports.

Georgia sports betting Supreme Court Harold Melton
Harold Melton, then the chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, delivers remarks in 2020 at the dedication ceremony of the Harold D. Melton Student Center on the Auburn University campus. Melton believes Georgia can lawfully legalize sports betting without a constitutional amendment. (Image: Auburn University)

Harold Melton served as chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court from September 2018 through June 2021. He was first appointed to the state’s highest bench on July 1, 2015.

Melton, a lifelong Georgian who received his bachelor’s from Auburn University before returning home for his Juris Doctorate at the University of Georgia, has spent his career practicing law in the Peach State. One of the state’s leading legal minds, Melton was recently petitioned by the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce for his views on the path to legal sports betting.

Melton concluded that state lawmakers have the legal authority to pass legislation that ends Georgia’s prohibition on sports betting.

Easier Path for Sports Betting

Gaming is one of the more controversial topics among state lawmakers in Georgia. Many Republicans believe any gaming expansion outside of the state-run lottery would diminish the quality of life in Georgia.

Gaming opponents cite the social ills often associated with legal gambling, including problem gambling, bankruptcy, crime, domestic abuse, and suicide. Georgians, however, are estimated to have gambled $5 billion illegally last year on sports through offshore websites and neighborhood bookies.

Proponents say legalizing sports betting would protect consumers while also generating new tax revenue for the state. But lawmakers have differing opinions on whether sports betting can only be legalized through an amendment to the Georgia Constitution.

Such an amendment would face long odds, as proposed constitutional referendums require two-thirds majority support in the state House of Representatives and Senate. The state constitution would be amended if the ballot question receives simple majority support from voters.

Melton says there’s an easier way for Georgia to join the more than 30 other states that have legalized sports betting since the US Supreme Court said such gambling should be left to the states and not the federal government. The May 2018 SCOTUS decision repealed a federal law that had limited single-game sports wagering to Nevada.

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.

Melton’s opinion was first reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Legislative action instead of a constitutional amendment would respectively reduce the votes needed in the House and Senate from 119 and 37 votes to just 91 and 29 votes.

Residents Back Sports Betting

The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce believes Georgians want the freedom to bet lawfully on sports. A recent poll conducted by DC-based polling firm Cygnal on behalf of the chamber and Atlanta Sports Council found that nearly 52% of likely voters would back Georgia permitting online sports betting.

Would you support or oppose an effort to legalize and regulate online sports wagering in Georgia and put the tax revenue it generates towards the HOPE Scholarship, college completion grants, and Pre-K education?” was how Cygnal worded the question. While 51.5% said they would support such an effort, only 24.2% said they would be in opposition. The rest of the respondents were not sure.

“Allowing our citizens to participate in safe, accountable sports betting while also strengthening the legacy of investment our state has made in higher education and student achievement will only build on Georgia’s reputation as a great place to live, work and innovate,” concluded Marshall Guest, the chamber’s senior vice president of public policy and public affairs.