Mass. High Court Hears Arguments On Proposed Casino Repeal Ballot Question

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A big decision on casino gambling in Massachusetts now rests with the state's high court.

Casino opponents gathered outside the John Adams Courthouse Monday morning, calling on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to allow a proposed repeal of the state's expanded gambling law to appear on the November ballot.

"Whether you're for or against casinos, it doesn't matter," said Pedro Morales, of the No Eastie Casino movement, which defeated a casino referendum in East Boston. "What's happening here is really the question: Do you have a voice in the rules that govern you?"

Morales and others fighting to repeal the 2011 law argue that barring the ballot question infringes on their rights as voters.

"If [Attorney General] Martha Coakley or any politician, elected or appointed, for one second believes you don't have that right, they don't deserve to represent you, they no longer represent you, and they will be turned out," he said at the rally.

Coakley's office denied the proposed ballot question last year, arguing that the state has an implied contract with casino applicants to decide who would win a casino license — even if the state never awards the license. Casino opponents then appealed the ballot decision.

Arguments inside the SJC hearing on Monday focused largely on the state's liability, should the repeal ballot question pass.

State Solicitor Peter Sacks, speaking on behalf of the attorney general's office at the 45-minute hearing, argued that casino applicants paid for a decision through fees to the state, and are entitled to hearing the Massachusetts Gaming Commission's decision.

"The rigorous nature of the commission's suitability investigations... make the suitability determination a potentially very valuable reference selling point to an applicant seeking to operate gaming establishments elsewhere," Sacks said.

He added that the question would have been approved to appear on the ballot had casino opponents changed the wording to prevent the gaming commission from issuing licenses — that by naming a winner, but not granting the casino license, the state would satisfy its responsibilities to casino applicants.

Attorney Thomas Bean, arguing for the Repeal the Casino Deal campaign, disagreed.

"If this petition goes on the ballot and passes, there will be no violation of any statute," he said. "It would be more like as if the public bidding authority said, 'We're rejecting all bids.' "

"And it can do this without compensation?" asked Justice Robert Cordy, one of seven justices on the state high court. "Without compensation for all of the investment that was made at the encouragement of the Legislature specifically, it can do it without compensation?"

"That is correct," Bean answered.

"Wow," Cordy replied.

Attorney Carl Valvo, speaking on behalf of casino interests, argued that there was an implied contract between casino applicants and Massachusetts, and that repealing the law would require the state to reimburse companies for investments they had made.

"When the government decides to build a road through my living room, it decides that the public interest requires that road. Fine. It takes my living room," he argued. "But I get paid for it. That's a taking."

By law, ballot petitions are barred from requiring state spending, therefore had the petition required that casino companies be reimbursed for expenses in pursuit of gaming licenses, it would have been deemed invalid.

The SJC is expected to make its decision by July 9, when signatures for the ballot question are due to the secretary of state's office for certification.

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Jack Lepiarz Reporter and Anchor
Jack Lepiarz was a reporter and anchor at WBUR.



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