The Democrat-controlled New Jersey Legislature set the stage for a statewide referendum in 2011 on changing the state Constitution to permit such gambling in spite of the federal prohibition. Nearly 70 percent of voters approved. Gov. Chris Christie signed such a bill into law in 2012, and the NCAA, NFL and three other sports organizations promptly sued to stop the state.
The leagues prevailed in the U.S. District Court and Third Circuit Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up the initial case.
But with a 2-1 split decision at the Third Circuit, and the majority's suggestion that the state might be able to craft a different sports betting law that would pass Constitutional muster, supporters continued the fight. The new version passed in 2014 repealed most of the state's betting laws while leaving the window open for the casinos and tracks to run their own private betting operations.
The state lost again in 2015, but the second 2-1 decision by the Third Circuit had an unexpected twist: the dissenter in the case was the same judge – Julio Fuentes – who had written the majority opinion in the first case. He concluded that New Jersey had successfully bypassed the federal ban on state involvement in the gambling.
But fellow judges Maryanne Trump Barry (sister of President Donald Trump) and Marjorie Rendell (wife of former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell) disagreed, saying that while the second law was "clever," it still amounted to "de facto authorization" of sports betting by the state.
The nation's top court again was asked to take the case, and it took the unusual step in January 2017 of seeking an advisory opinion from the U.S. solicitor general on the necessity of addressing the issue. When staff at that office recommended that the court need not take up the matter, it seemed like a longshot that the court would step in.
But four months later, the court did just that – raising hopes among sports-betting advocates that the conservative majority would accept their arguments. Those sentiments were further raised last December at oral arguments in Washington, D.C.