New Jersey, Pennsylvania Attorneys General Demand Wire Act Answers From DOJ

Posted on: February 6, 2019, 08:12h. 

Last updated on: February 6, 2019, 08:12h.

The attorneys general for New Jersey and Delaware are demanding answers from the US Department of Justice on how the federal agency came to its new opinion on the 1961 Wire Act.

attorneys general Wire Act online gambling
The attorneys general for New Jersey (Gurbir Grewal, left) and Pennsylvania (Josh Shapiro) want answers from the DOJ on the federal Wire Act. (Image: North Jersey Record/USA TODAY/

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal (D) and Pennsylvania AG Josh Shapiro (D) represent two of the four states where legislation has been passed authorizing some form of internet gambling. The recent opinion on the Wire Act issued by DOJ Office of Legal Counsel Assistant Attorney General Steven Engel threatens to jeopardize those operations.

In joint letter to Acting US Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, Grewal and Shapiro say they have “strong opposition” to the redefining of the federal law.

We … write to express our strong objections to the Office of Legal Counsel’s opinion announcing that federal criminal law could apply to the state-sanctioned online gambling that has taken place for years,” the letter explains. “That new opinion, ‘Reconsidering Whether the Wire Act Applies to Non-Sports Gambling,’ reverses the Department of Justice’s seven-year-old position expressly allowing online gambling to proceed.”

Engle’s opinion – made public last month but decided in November – says the Wire Act’s scope isn’t “uniformly limited to gambling on sporting events or contests,” but all forms of gaming.

The Wire Act originally banned the use of wire transmissions to send interstate or foreign bets or wagers “on any sporting event or contest.” However, responding to inquiries regarding online lottery games, the DOJ said in 2011 that the law applied only to sports wagering.

Grewal and Shapiro are requesting that the DOJ opinion be withdrawn, or a guarantee be issued that the federal agency will not bring enforcement sanctions against states permitting and companies operating in the online gaming industry.

Lottery Opposed

The two state attorneys general aren’t the only ones responding to the DOJ this week. The impact of the 2018 Wire Act opinion could jeopardize interstate lotteries.

Six states allow citizens to play lottery games on the internet, and five – Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, and New Hampshire – permit the buying of interstate games Powerball and Mega Millions.

The North American Association of State & Provincial Lotteries (NASPL), whose members include every state lottery association, expressed its displeasure on the DOJ opinion this week. The NASPL said the reversal “creates a substantially detrimental impact on the lottery industry,” and “billions of dollars for good causes.”

Clarification Needed

Legal experts speaking with say an appropriate resolution to interpretation of the 58-year law might be to modernize its language. 1961 was many decades before the internet became accessible to Americans.

Competitive Enterprise Institute Senior Fellow Michelle Minton, who has written extensively and testified before Congress on the Wire Act, says adding individual definitions to clarify what types of gambling is and isn’t permitted under the law would be a good first step.

Minton adds that the DOJ should specify whether the term ‘wire communications’ includes the internet.

For now, the DOJ has said only that states have 90 days since the new opinion was published to comply with the revised interpretation.