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Numerous challenges to United States online gambling appeared in 2016, with several attempts at federal bills to ban internet gaming through legislation. One of the last upsetting events for online poker supporters came in the form of a letter to Vice President-elect Mike Pence from ten state attorneys general in November, which requested action on the 2011 Department of Justice decision on the Wire Act.

The letter exposed the latest attempt by casino mogul and anti-online gaming lobbyist Sheldon Adelson to push for a federal ban. While there are no direct ties between the attorneys general and Adelson, the billionaire’s numerous campaign contributions to Republican candidates around the country were likely motivations for the push to ask Pence to reverse that DOJ decision. It was that DOJ ruling in 2011 that allowed states to legalize and regulate online gambling under the new interpretation of the 1961 Wire Act.

Since that time, New Jersey, Delaware, and Nevada have done just that, and more states have considered the move. Pennsylvania, New York, and California are among the many states considering following that lead in 2017. In addition, many states used that DOJ decision to begin online lottery sales and daily fantasy sports regulations.

Enter Attorney General Nominee Jeff Sessions

When President-elect Donald Trump announced his choice for the new US Attorney General as longtime Senator Jeff Sessions, one thing became clear: The 2011 DOJ decision was in danger of being overturned. Not only is Sessions friendly with other Republican Senators like Lindsey Graham, who are ready and willing to do the bidding of Adelson, Sessions was supportive of a 1997 federal internet gambling ban, though that bill never gained ground.

On January 9, a Congressional hearing began to hear testimony from and about Sessions before a vote on his bid to become the next US Attorney General. The support for Sessions in the Senate was wide-ranging, as he first began serving in 1996 and has garnered much seniority in the two decades since.

Senator Lindsey Graham – sponsor of a number of Restoration of America’s Wire Act (RAWA) bills in recent years – was one of the questioners at the hearing on its first day, and his questions were mostly of a friendly nature. Just after a question about Muslims, Graham tossed in question that surprised some.

“About the Wire Act, what’s your view of the, uh, uh, Obama administration’s interpretation of the Wire Act to allow online video poker… or poker… gambling?”

Sessions responded, “Uh, Senator, I was shocked at the memorandum, I guess the enforcement memorandum, that the Department of Justice issued with regard to the Wire Act and criticized it. Apparently, there is some justification or argument that can be made to support the Department of Justice’s position, but I did oppose it when it happened. And it seemed to me to be unusual.”

Graham interrupted, “Would you revisit it?”

Sessions responded, “I will, I would revisit it, and I would make a decision about it based on careful study, and I haven’t reached, I haven’t gone that far to give you an opinion today.”

It should be noted that Sessions was grinning when he talked about revisiting the Wire Act decision.

Swift Response from Poker Community

Poker writers like Steve Ruddock, organizations like the Poker Players Alliance (PPA), and many poker players and enthusiasts instantly took to social media.

Not long after, the PPA issued a statement, which included words from Executive Director John Pappas, which read, in part, as follows:

“In 2006, a Republican Congress and a Republican President passed and signed into law a bill that allowed states to regulate online gaming. This language was reaffirmed by the Department of Justice (DOJ) in 2011 and empowered individual states to pursue policies that best served their citizens.

“A reversal of this decision would be a radical departure from the precedent given to the independent and legally based opinions generated by DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). We appreciate nominee Sessions’ pledge to give the issue ‘careful study,’ and we also have no doubt that such careful study will reaffirm what OLC, the courts and Congress already agree on: the Wire Act is limited to sports betting and states may regulate other forms of internet gaming.

“We also trust that he adheres to the longstanding practice of giving ‘great weight to any relevant past opinions’ when he reviews OLC’s 2011 position with regard to the Wire Act. The precedent of giving weight to prior OLC decisions is something both the Bush and Obama administrations advised in published ‘Best Practices’ memorandums.

“Countless organizations agree that states should be able to regulate online gaming – regulation that provides robust consumer protections. Support for the 2011 interpretation includes: The American Conservative Union; Americans for Tax Reform; Campaign for Liberty; Center for Individual Freedom; Competitive Enterprise Institute; Fraternal Order of Police; National Conference of State Legislatures; National Governors Association; Ron Paul Institute; and Taxpayers Protection Alliance.
“In his opening statement, nominee Sessions said his Department of Justice would not ‘cower to special interests.’ We applaud that stance, and share it, as we have long been on the front lines of this fight battling against powerful political donors and special interests seeking to influence legal policy in the United States for their own financial benefit.

“I agree with Senator Graham, ‘when the state is doing its job, the federal government should let the states do their job.’ States around the country are doing their jobs by effectively regulating internet gaming. The next Attorney General should not usurp the rights of states. A de facto federal prohibition of internet gaming will undermine the ability of states to protect consumers and will lead to an unaccountable and completely unregulated black market.”

What is Next?

Anyone can get involved and stand up for the rights of Americans to play poker online, and the PPA will continually update its action plan to make sure the community can fight any potential changes to the 2011 DOJ decision.

Sessions is very likely to be confirmed as the next US Attorney General. He will then have the power to reverse the DOJ ruling. However, since numerous states have already used that ruling to offer various types of gambling on the internet, there will likely be numerous legal challenges filed immediately. As detailed by Ruddock for Online Poker Report, states would then have to file injunctions to continue current operations

Adelson will likely push his allies as hard as possible to make the Wire Act decision quickly and fight any efforts from states to continue operating their endeavors online. All the while, states likely already have attorneys preparing to fight the actions in courts without any interruption in services.

The fight is on. Graham and Sessions made it clear that there will be little time wasted before the issue of online gambling is addressed on a national level. The poker community is going to have to be ready.

Jennifer Newell

Jennifer has been a freelance writer in the poker industry for a decade. She left a full-time job with the World Poker Tour to tell the stories of poker. She now lives in St. Louis, writes about poker while pursuing other varied interests, and speaks her mind on Twitter… a lot.