01/10/2012 05:19 pm ET Updated Jan 10, 2012

Gambling Gains: Another Victory For Sports Betting, in New Jersey

Fresh off a victory in his state on the path towards legalizing sports betting, New Jersey state Sen. Raymond Lesniak pledged Tuesday to take the fight nationwide.

On Monday Lesniak, a Democrat, succeeded in rushing a sports-betting bill through the state legislature. The bill would allow wagering on pro and college games in Atlantic City and at the state's racetracks if a federal ban on sports betting is reversed. Following an expected signature of the measure by Gov. Chris Christie, the New Jersey attorney general could file suit in federal district court as early as this month to try to overturn the federal prohibition, Lesniak said.

The economic funk is empowering gambling proponents like Lesniak, who is also behind a state online gambling bill. New Jersey is bearing $10 billion of a collective $95 billion debt carried by U.S. states in 2012. And the Garden State is losing gambling revenue to Nevada and betting rings run by organized crime, Lesniak said. While other states are looking to generate revenue through casino gambling, New Jersey is taking the lead on sports betting. And it's doing so without much help. "Other than mild encouragement, [other states] let us carry the ball for the rest of the country," Lesniak said.

If New Jersey's challenge succeeds in overturning the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, people could bet on the Super Bowl and other sporting events in any state that legalizes bookmaking. Four states -- Nevada, Delaware, Montana and Oregon -- are already exempt from that law.

Americans bet $100 billion a year on sports, legally or otherwise, according to the University of California, Los Angeles gambling studies program. Lesniak believes that all that stands in the way of cash-hungry states getting their share though sports betting is persuading the court that the law is unconstitutional. States should be allowed to determine how they raise revenue, particularly when four states are already given the privilege, he said.

New Jersey's expected battle with the Justice Department would be a rematch of sorts. Lesniak, through his law firm, filed suit last year to strike down the ban. He firm handled the work pro bono, he said. But the federal appeals court threw out the suit, declaring that the state itself would have to file the action.

Momentum has been building for pro-gambling forces. The Justice Department this month eased its interpretation of the Wire Act, opening the possibility for states to pursue online gambling for games such as poker. And Lesniak is optimistic about the upcoming challenge against the Sports Protection Act. He cited a letter in which the Justice Department objected to Congress' passing the law because it violated states' rights. The letter was addressed to Joe Biden, the current vice president who was then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Attorney Peter Dugas, director of government affairs for the Washington, D.C., firm Clark Hill, said no challenge has come close to eliminating the sports betting ban and that a different outcome was "really questionable."

Lesniak remains undaunted, saying if the court addresses substance over procedural issues, the outcome should be a no-brainer in favor of his side. "It should not take long in U.S. District Court to get a decision," he said.