Bingo, gambling and the rule of law

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 30, 2013

By Cameron Smith

For years, Alabamians have read news articles, listened to radio talk shows, or spoken to politicians about gambling in the state. Even so, the issue seems to be a significant source of confusion about policy, politics, and the rule of law.

The gambling conversation has percolated again after Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange raided the VictoryLand casino and filed suit against the gambling operations of the Poarch Creek Indians earlier this year.

With certain exceptions, Alabama law currently prohibits gambling. But because many seem to be confused about what is, and what is not, gambling, virtually every aspect of gambling has been even further clarified by the courts.

Slot and video poker machines clearly fall within the purview of Alabama’s gaming prohibitions, but gambling establishment operators have become creative in their attempt to keep the doors open and the dollars flowing. Alabama law permits bingo for charitable purposes in certain counties. Gambling operators have availed themselves of the charitable bingo provisions by essentially casting slot machines as instances of electronic bingo.

This prompted the Alabama Supreme Court to issue opinions in 2009 and 2010 establishing six elements for identifying “bingo.” Anyone with an ounce of common sense should know the difference between a slot machine and the game of bingo, but, in Alabama, we have a legal test for it.

To further complicate matters, Indian gambling operators assert that their operations are governed by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) under the authority of the National Indian Gaming Commission. As such, they claim that their operations are exempt from state law and state law enforcement.

IGRA specifically states that Indian tribes only have the exclusive right to regulate gaming activity if it is “conducted within a State that does not…prohibit such gaming activity.” IGRA also excludes slot machines from its definition of “bingo.”

Much like their state-based counterparts, Indian gambling operators have argued that their slot machines are actually electronic bingo machines. The only important difference is that they argue that Indian operators are exempt from the Alabama Supreme Court’s test to determine the difference between the two gaming devices.

The fundamental point is that the gambling machines operating in Alabama are slot and video poker machines poorly masquerading as “electronic bingo.” The notion that patrons could play a full game of bingo in the amount of time it takes to pull the lever or press a button on a machine is a tortured attempt to circumvent Alabama’s current law.

Recently, Attorney General Strange has drawn fire for continuing to aggressively enforce Alabama’s gambling prohibitions. Even retired U.S. Magistrate Judge Vanzetta McPherson has suggested that upholding the state’s gambling laws is not one of the “consequential issues that really matter.”

But faithfully enforcing the law in Alabama does matter. While some Alabamians may be ambivalent towards gambling in the state, they should not be about ensuring that the current laws of the state are upheld.

If, as Judge McPherson claims, the will of the people of Alabama is so overwhelmingly supportive of expanding gambling, then why were Democrats, enjoying the support of gambling operators, unable to legalize gambling in Alabama for decades? Why would Alabamians have elected so many Republican legislators, many who campaigned specifically against gambling?

By pursuing Indian gambling operators, Attorney General Strange has defied the convenient political narrative that Republicans have prosecuted non-Indian operators in Alabama while enjoying the political support of Indian operators seeking to stifle the growth of their competition.

As long as gambling is illegal in Alabama, the Attorney General does not have the option to unilaterally decline to enforce the law. Gambling operators and their patrons may continue to seek legalization through the democratic process, but the Attorney General, regardless of party, must enforce the laws as they are, not as some wish them to be.


Cameron Smith is Policy Director and General Counsel for the Alabama Policy Institute.