By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH — It has been six months since North Carolina’s Court of Appeals struck down the state’s video sweepstakes ban, but the legal fight to keep the highly addictive games at bay isn’t over as the state’s highest court is scheduled to hear arguments in the case Oct. 17.
“Back in March, lawmakers who have fought diligently against this form of gambling were disappointed but still determined,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “They pushed for an expedited appeal to the N.C. Supreme Court. And now that the appeal is almost here, we’re hopeful for an outcome that upholds state law.
The issue coming before the seven-member judicial panel next month is actually two separate court cases: Hest Technologies Inc. v. the State of North Carolina, which originated in Guilford County, and Sandhill Amusements v. the State of North Carolina, first filed in Wake.
Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway dismissed the Sandhill Amusements suit, while Judge John Craig III ruled in favor of Hest, striking down a part of the state’s ban and creating a legal quagmire of sorts for police departments and sheriff’s offices struggling to figure out how to enforce it. Both rulings dealt with games that mimic casino-style video games, a form of gambling that the Legislature has tried repeatedly to outlaw.
Lawmakers gave stand-alone video poker games the boot in July of 2007, but the gaming industry immediately replaced the machines with Internet-based games that reveal winners and losers via a sweepstakes system. Each time the General Assembly has tried to tighten the ban, owners of sweepstakes businesses have simply tweaked their software or otherwise altered the games and claimed that they were legal, insisting that users were not gambling but simply buying internet or phone time and checking to see if they had possibly won a prize.
When the Hest and Sandhill cases came before a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals, the ruling was split, 2-1, in favor of the gaming industry. Judges Ann Marie Calabria and Linda M. McGee ruled that the video sweepstakes ban violated the First Amendment by forbidding operators from “conveying the results of otherwise legal sweepstakes in a constitutionally protected manner.” They agreed with Judge Craig that the law was overly broad. But dissenting justice Robert C. Hunter said the statute regulates conduct, not speech, and should have been upheld.
Attorney Chris Derrick, who analyzed the Appeals Court decision for the North Carolina Family Policy Council, said the issue on appeal was whether the statute was overbroad and not specifically whether the games were “otherwise legal sweepstakes.” He told the NCFPC that when appellate courts in other states have directly addressed that issue, they have consistently ruled that the games were not legal sweepstakes, but instead “illegal games of chance.”
He asserted that whether or not the ban as written is constitutional, the electronic sweepstakes that it targets violate the state’s other long established anti-gambling laws.
When the Supreme Court takes up the case Oct. 17, it will not rule on the facts of the Hest and Sandhill cases, only on error in legal procedures or in judicial interpretation of the law.
“It’s that interpretation that is key,” said Dr. Creech. “At the heart of this issue is whether the General Assembly has the power to set the ground rules regarding gambling in the state or not.”
He said Christians across the state should pray for the Supreme Court of North Carolina as they take up the video sweepstakes issue as well as for wisdom and clarity for those who argue before the court.