RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Attorney General Mark Herring is asking the Virginia Supreme Court to lift a judge’s order temporarily blocking the state from enforcing its ban on electronic skill games.
A judge in Greensville Circuit Court presiding over a lawsuit challenging Virginia’s ban issued a temporary injunction on Dec. 6 putting the enforcement of the law prohibiting the slot-like gambling machines on hold until May.
Over the years and particularly during the pandemic, these devices proliferated in convenience stores, truck stops, restaurants and other businesses across the commonwealth.
Herring filed a petition for review Tuesday requesting that the state’s Supreme Court dissolve the injunction, arguing the circuit court failed to weigh all the factors when imposing the order and mistakenly concluded the gambling devices “constituted protected speech” under the First Amendment.
“Far from preserving the previous state of affairs, the circuit court’s temporary injunction has upended the status quo and resulted in the proliferation of entirely unregulated gambling devices across the Commonwealth,” the AG’s office writes in its filing. “It is now legal in Virginia for a child of any age to go to a corner store and gamble on so-called video skills games.”
The Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control regulated and taxed the betting machines before the ban went into effect in July, oversight that is no longer in place after the injunction.
The lawsuit challenging the ban was filed in Greenville County Circuit Court before it went into effect in July on behalf of the truck stop and gas station company owned by former NASCAR driver Hermie Sadler.
Sadler and his company are being represented by attorney and Republican state Sen. Bill Stanley (Franklin County), former state attorney general Anthony F. “Tony” Troy and Jason Hicks.
In the suit, Sadler’s company claims that the state’s ban unconstitutionally takes away a major revenue source from his stores, while Virginia has opened itself up for legal gambling. When the lawsuit was filed, Sadler said his stores relied on the revenue from skill games for 20 years but especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The electronic betting machines, sometimes referred to as “gray machines” because they function in a gray area of the law, look and pay out winnings like slot machines. But manufacturers of the machines argue skill is involved — hence the name “skill games.”
The Virginia General Assembly voted for the so-called skill games ban in 2020, but lawmakers agreed to delay the ban at the request of Gov. Ralph Northam so the tax revenue from the machines could help fund coronavirus relief plans. The ban came as state lawmakers approved legislation to make way for up to five casinos and mobile sports betting in Virginia.
Attorneys for Sadler blasted the AG’s request, pointing to an amicus brief — a court filing backing a legal effort — from the company that owns Colonial Downs Group/Rosie’s Gaming Emporium in support of Herring’s petition for review.
“We suspected this all along,” Stanley said in a statement Wednesday. “The attempt to ban skill games was never about good government policy. It was about money and greed and the big casinos were behind it.”
Troy accused Herring of “helping big, out-of-state gaming interests crush local small business owners like Hermie Sadler.”
Stanley and Sadler were not made available for an interview Wednesday. Herring was also not made available for an interview, but a spokesperson wrote in an email to 8News that the AG’s office “is simply doing its job by defending the law passed by the General Assembly.”
Unless the Virginia Supreme Court acts, the injunction will stay in effect until the trial on Sadler’s challenge on May 18.