Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Stop fast-tracking casino industry court cases

One of the many problems surrounding Pennsylvania's dubious venture into state-approved gambling is how all the legal disputes surrounding casinos get fast-tracked straight to the state Supreme Court.

Stop fast-tracking casino industry court cases

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Mayor Nutter addressed the media at 30th Street Station after casino mogul Steve Wynn (inset) pulled out of the Foxwoods project. (Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer)
Mayor Nutter addressed the media at 30th Street Station after casino mogul Steve Wynn (inset) pulled out of the Foxwoods project. (Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer)

 

One of the many problems surrounding Pennsylvania’s dubious venture into state-approved gambling is how all the legal disputes surrounding casinos get fast-tracked straight to the state Supreme Court. A proposal by State Rep. Curt Schroder (R., Chester), minority chairman of the House Gaming Oversight Committee, seeks to undo that special treatment. If passed, legal disputes involving gaming would go through regular court channels, just like other cases.
That’s the way it should be.
 
It is troubling that one industry is allowed to bypass the lower courts and have its legal disputes heard exclusively by the high court. No one else gets such preferential treatment.
Perhaps this would be little less of an issue if the Supreme Court, the legislature, Gov. Rendell, and the gaming industry were not so entangled. The backroom politics surrounding the legalization of gaming has been a concern from the start. Rendell pushed for gaming, and the legislature passed the law late at night, with little public input, in July 2004. Then-State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo played a key role in crafting the gaming law, which said all legal challenges concerning gaming would be resolved solely by the Supreme Court. Fumo was later convicted of unrelated corruption charges, and is now in federal prison.
 
The state Supreme Court has sided with the gaming industry on most major legal disputes. Just last year, the court overturned a ban on campaign contributions from the gaming industry, saying it violated free speech. The ban was challenged in a lawsuit filed by Peter DePaul, a developer and major political contributor who is an investor in the proposed Foxwoods Casino in Philadelphia. DePaul is also a past judge in the Court of Judicial Discipline, the state board that hears complaints against judges and has the power to remove them from the bench. Suspicions still remain regarding an alleged deal between the court and the legislature regarding the legalization of gaming.
 
The League of Women Voters sued former Chief Justice Ralph Cappy in federal court, alleging that the court upheld the gaming law in order to gain legislative approval of a judicial pay raise. Cappy strongly denied the allegations in the suit, which was eventually dismissed. After Cappy retired, he joined a Pittsburgh law firm that represents gaming interests. He died last year. Another former chief justice, Stephen A. Zappala Sr., was hired to be the chairman of Pennsylvania Casino Association, an organization funded by several casino operators. The PCA was founded by Dick Sprague, an attorney who used to be good friends with Fumo and is an investor in the SugarHouse Casino planned for Philadelphia. Sprague is also a former member of the state’s Judicial Conduct Board. Also an investor in SugarHouse is former Justice William H. Lamb. He was on the court only a short time and left before the gaming law was passed.
 
The overlapping ties between the court and gaming investors remain a concern to Schroder and others. That’s why he sensibly doesn’t want the state Supreme Court to be the first and only word on gaming issues. Schroder says that at the very least the coziness makes it appear that one industry is receiving special treatment. He is right. The law should be changed.
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