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Judge refuses to halt Delaware sports betting

WILMINGTON, Del. — A federal judge on Wednesday denied a request by professional sports leagues and the NCAA to halt Delaware's planned sports betting lottery until a legal challenge is resolved.

Chief District Judge Gregory Sleet set a Dec. 7 trial date on the plaintiffs' claims that the sports betting plan violates a federal ban on sports gambling, as well as Delaware's state constitution.

"The court concludes that a preliminary injunction ... is not warranted in this case," said Sleet, adding that the leagues had not met their burden of proving that such an "extraordinary remedy" was justified.

Sleet's ruling came after he and attorneys for both sides met behind closed doors for more than an hour before emerging in open court to continue discussions on case scheduling and the request for an injunction.

Sleet said the leagues had not convinced him that they would suffer irreparable harm without an injunction, that the state would not be irreparably harmed with it, or that the injunction would be in the public interest.

"The court is not convinced that the plaintiffs will likely succeed on the merits in this case," he added. "... The court is simply not in a position to give either side a nod on the merits."

Kenneth Nachbar, an attorney representing the leagues and the National Collegiate Athletic Association, said he would speak with his clients before deciding whether to appeal Sleet's ruling.

"I think the professional leagues and the NCAA continue to oppose the proliferation of sports betting and will evaluate our legal options," he said.

Michael Barlow, counsel to Gov. Jack Markell, said the administration was pleased with Sleet's decision. Barring an appeal sports betting could begin with the start of football season in September.

The 1992 federal ban on sports betting exempted four states, including Delaware, that already offered sports gambling. The sports leagues contend that Delaware's new lottery goes beyond what is allowed by the exemption. Unlike the failed 1976 lottery, which offered only parlay bets on the results of three or more NFL games, the new plan would allow betting on single games, and on sports other than professional football.

The state Supreme Court ruled in May that the sports betting plan does not conflict with the state constitution as long as chance is the predominant factor in winning or losing. The justices refused, however, to decide the constitutionality of single-game bets. The leagues argue that skill would outweigh the element of chance in single-game betting, and that such wagering would therefore violate the state constitution.

Before the issue of skill versus chance ever goes to trial, Sleet is expected to rule on the plaintiffs' request for summary judgment on their claim that the sports lottery violates the federal ban. A decision in favor of the leagues on that issue could make the second question moot.

"We will be preparing to try everything in December," said David Margules, an attorney hired to represent the state.

In pressing for an injunction, Nachbar argued unsuccessfully Wednesday that the harm posed to the plaintiffs from sports betting was recognized by Congress in enacting the 1992 law.

"I don't think harm is or can be disputed ... that's why they passed the statute," he said.

Nachbar also argued that a delay in starting the sports lottery would not harm the state, which estimates that sports betting will contribute $17 million to the current fiscal year's budget of $3 billion. A delay of two months would result in a revenue loss to the state of one-tenth of 1 percent of the budget, Nachbar noted.

"We don't think that's irreparable harm for the state," he suggested.