Alabama’s Supreme Court has ordered the closure of electronic bingo machines at three gaming facilities, firing the latest shot in a decade-long legal battle and raising the stakes for legislative discussions on expanded gambling that are set to resume in 2023.
In a 51-page ruling on Friday (September 30), the Supreme Court ordered local courts in two Alabama counties to impose preliminary or permanent injunctions on the electronic gaming machine operations of the VictoryLand, Southern Star and White Hall racetrack and entertainment venues.
The Supreme Court previously found the bingo machines offered by the three venues to be illegal.
However, the three facilities had successfully fought off attempts to enforce those rulings by arguing before local courts that the state’s orders to enjoin their operations could not be granted as there was no public nuisance emergency to justify them, and they were not being criminally prosecuted.
In its ruling on Friday, the Supreme Court found the state government had sufficient evidence the three venues were offering illegal gambling and that any forensic examination of their electronic bingo machines against the specific definitions of bingo permitted under Alabama law would not be necessary to prove that.
“The state presented evidence establishing that no action had been taken in Macon and Lowndes Counties to enforce Alabama’s ban on illegal gambling, despite our case law clearly identifying 'electronic bingo' as illegal both generally and in these counties specifically,” the court ruled.
“Thus, the state also successfully demonstrated its lack of success in applying that purported alternate remedy to shut down the defendants' illegal gambling operations, which constitute a public nuisance per se.”
Friday’s ruling is just the latest salvo in a legal saga over the status of electronic bingo machines that stretches back at least 15 years.
Including through a landmark 2010 ruling, Alabama’s Supreme Court has consistently ruled that state gambling laws permit only traditional bingo games and not the electronic bingo machines being offered at VictoryLand, White Hall, Southern Star and two other locations.
The state has also tried and failed in federal courts to make the same argument regarding Class II electronic gaming machines offered by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.
In a statement, Alabama attorney general Steve Marshall said Friday’s ruling would “prohibit the casinos from offering so-called ‘electronic bingo’— a misnomer used by the casinos to mean ‘video-slot machine gambling’ — at their respective facilities.”
“The Alabama Supreme Court’s opinion makes clear what my office has maintained from the start: these gambling enterprises are not only patently illegal under Alabama law, but also a menace to public health, morals, safety, and welfare,” said Marshall, a Republican.
The attorney general’s statement noted how Friday’s judgment followed a June Supreme Court ruling in favor of the state’s effort to claim some $76m in various unpaid state taxes from a fourth Alabama gaming operator, Greenetrack.
Another case to require Greenetrack, which has already closed as a result of the tax ruling, to permanently cease its electronic gaming operations is also pending.
It remains to be seen how the Supreme Court orders to enjoin electronic bingo machines will influence ongoing discussions in the Alabama legislature regarding expanded gambling.
The state's Senate last year approved comprehensive legislation to authorize full casino gaming at six locations and through a tribal gaming compact with the Poarch Band. The legislation would also have authorized state-wide mobile sports betting and created a state lottery in Alabama for the first time.
The Senate-approved bill failed to clear the House, however, and lawmakers made a less intensive effort to pass expanded gambling during their session in the election year of 2022.
Both Governor Kay Ivey, a Republican who has championed expanded gambling, and attorney general Marshall are up for re-election on November 8.
A gambling task force established by the governor issued a report in 2020 that concluded Alabama could earn $510m to $710m in annual tax revenue through legalization of casinos, a state lottery and sports betting.