Gov. Chris Christie wants to tap into the multibillion-dollar sports betting industry but must first get around a 1992 federal law that limits sports betting to Nevada and three other states.
The U.S. Justice Department, the NCAA and the four major pro sports leagues oppose the move. And a federal judge this year sided with the challengers, blocking the sports betting law that New Jersey had passed.
The state appealed that judge's ruling, leading to a battle of legal heavyweights Wednesday in the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.
Former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson, representing the state, said the 1992 law discriminates against New Jersey and 45 other states, much like the Voting Rights Act that was partially struck down Tuesday by the Supreme Court.
The 3rd Circuit judges asked if the leagues didn't have a point in arguing that betting on games has tarnished sports and been the source of various scandals.
"What New Jersey wants to do is shine a light on that activity" by opening the books and protecting potential victims, Olson argued.
Paul Clement, another former U.S. solicitor general who represents the NFL and the three other major sports leagues, argued that the dynamics of sports change when states condone and even participate in wagers on games.
"They're our games, after all, and we have a legitimate interest in controlling whether these games are going to be sporting events and not gambling events," Clement argued.
The U.S. attorney for New Jersey, Paul J. Fishman, argued for the Justice Department. He said Congress had a legitimate reason to grandfather in the four states in 1992 because they wanted to limit the ills of sports betting.
The three-judge panel did not immediately indicate when it would rule.
New Jersey voters passed a sports betting referendum in 2011, and last year the Legislature enacted a law that limited bets to the Atlantic City casinos and the state's horse tracks. Bets wouldn't be taken on games involving New Jersey colleges or college games played in the state.
The NFL, NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball and the NCAA sued the state last year, and the NCAA has moved several of its championship events out of New Jersey because of the law. In a court deposition, MLB commissioner Bud Selig said he was "appalled" by Christie's actions.
Christie has pledged to take his challenge of the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.