On January 14, 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice published a legal opinion that may restrict online gambling. The opinion, dated November 2, 2018, (although only now published) reconsidered the DOJ’s 2011 opinion that declared the Wire Act (18 U.S.C. § 1084) only applied to sports gambling. After the release of the 2011 opinion, several states, including New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania, launched or moved forward with intrastate online lottery, casino gaming and poker. The new opinion, however, somewhat clouds the landscape regarding these operations. Online gaming businesses would be well advised to quickly determine whether their operations comply with the DOJ’s new reading.
The reconsideration stems from one phrase in the Wire Act: “on any sporting event or contest.” In 2011, the DOJ opined that the Wire Act was ambiguous and “that the more logical result” was that the phrase “on any sporting event or contest” applied to the entirety of the Wire Act, thereby prohibiting only the transmission of “bets or wagers” or “information assisting in the placing of bets or wagers” across state lines, if the bet or wager were on a sporting event. This logic follows in part from the Act’s legislative history, which reveals that Congress’ overriding goal in passing the Wire Act was to stop the use of wire communications by organized crime for illegal sports gambling. In 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States, in Murphy v. Nat’l Collegiate Athletic Ass’n—a decision that paved the way for states to authorize sports betting, in dicta—noted Congress’ original intent in characterizing a general federal approach to gambling: Operating a gambling business violates federal law only if that conduct is illegal under state or local law.