Does Georgia Sports Betting Really Require a Constitutional Amendment?

Dan Favale
By , Updated on: May 25, 2023 08:00 PM
Does Georgia Sports Betting Really Require a Constitutional Amendment?

Ever since the latest legal sports betting bill in Georgia failed during this past round of legislative meetings, many have wondered what it will take to get gambling inside the state over the hump. Do they simply need more time? Does there need to be more upheaval in elected offices? Is Georgia sports betting merely not a realistic development or priority?

Others, meanwhile, have taken to pondering alternatives. "Is there anything else The Peach State can do to expand their gaming laws?" has become a common refrain among current and former lawmakers. Some have even tried envisioning a scenario where sports betting in Georgia doesn't require a constitutional amendment.

Going this route isn't unheard of. Florida sports betting laws tried it. And it was successful at first. It has since been tied up in litigation for the better part of two years.

The legalization of sports gambling in Georgia without a constitutional amendment was a topic of discussion among select lawmakers before legislative meetings wrapped up this year. But many don't believe it's feasible. And yet, if it is, it could change the landscape of gaming in The Peach State.

Former Supreme Court Justice Believes Georgia Sports Betting Can Get Legalized without Constitutional Amendment

While most have painted this particular route to Georgia sports betting as unlikely, a former United States Supreme Court Justice from the state clearly disagrees. Justice Harold D. Melton, who served as Georgia's Supreme Court Justice for 16 years before stepping down in 2021, recently wrote in a memo that the addition of sports gambling doesn't necessarily require a constitutional amendment.

Here are the details, courtesy of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

“A constitutional amendment is not needed for the state to allow legal online sports betting and should be considered an extension of the lottery, in the opinion of former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold D. Melton. Efforts to get the legislation through the General Assembly have picked up this year, with the Metro Atlanta Chamber asking Melton for his views on the constitutional legality of allowing sports betting. 'Based on my review of the relevant law, the original public meanings of applicable terms and the historical context of those terms, it is my opinion that sports betting can be legalized as a state-run lottery for educational purposes solely through legislative action,' Melton wrote in a 10-page memo obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution."

This is a fairly novel stance that Melton is assuming. When Florida legalized sports betting without a constitutional amendment, they did so by brokering an exclusive on-site gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe. Melton, on the other hand, is suggesting that Georgia can loop online sports betting under the state's lottery program while guaranteeing proceeds be directed toward educational initiatives. The Peach State's lottery already offers online gaming options.

Most other states with legal sports betting already have the lottery department running their gambling operations. Most also ensure some portion of their legal sports betting revenue finds its way to educational programs. So, this wouldn't really represent a stark departure when considering the setup. It would, however, make sports gambling almost exclusively a commercialized operation. Tribal casinos might be granted access to the online sports betting market, but without the on-site element baked in, they'd be starting a few lengths behind more established corporations.

What are the Benefits to Legalizing Sports Betting in Georgia without a Constitutional Amendment?

Former Chief Justice Melton's interpretation of gaming laws is all about time. Bypassing a constitutional amendment allows Georgia to legalize sports betting without waiting for the next general election, which doesn't take place until 2024. The state could theoretically ratify a sports betting proposal and implement it at any time. However, they would still need ample support throughout the House of Representatives and Senate. And that, more so than anything else, is Georgia's problem.

Support among the general population isn't an issue for The Peach State. Multiple polls conducted have found that a majority of Georgia residents approve of sports betting in some form. Experts are also quick to point out that the Georgia sports betting market is already fairly robust. Residents are able to gamble in neighboring states, and they also have the option to bet with some of the best online sportsbooks that are located offshore.

Lawmakers have provided more resistance than the voting population. Georgia requires two-thirds support at each legislative level for constitutional amendments. The threshold of approval for Melton's idea is lower, but it still rests on lawmakers throughout the state advocating for legal sports betting. That doesn't seem especially likely.

Though Governor Brian Kemp has warmed up to sports betting discussions after registering as a staunch opponent, the appetite throughout other legislative chambers isn't especially aggressive. So many officials continue to say that "any form of gambling is immoral, addictive and leads to crime, and they promise a fight," according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. They weren't kidding, either.

When the subject of sports betting was broached during legislative meetings this year, opponents openly argued that sports betting could not be grandfathered into the current constitution under the state's lottery umbrella. And their sentiments were convincing enough to kill sports betting legislature altogether. So while Melton may have mapped out a path to Georgia sports betting that doesn't require voter approval, his workaround doesn't actually seem like it'll matter. Constitutional amendment or not, The Peach State clearly needs more of their lawmakers to come around before sports betting in Georgia can have a future.

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Meet the author

Dan Favale

Dan Favale leverages over 12 years of sports journalism expertise in his role as New York staff writer. He provides in-depth analysis across the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL, tennis, NASCAR, college basketball, and sports betting. Dan co-hosts the popular Hardwood Knocks NBA podc...

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