The Pennsylvania Supreme Court yesterday issued a preliminary injunction forbidding Philadelphia from placing an anti-casino referendum question on the May 15 ballot.
In a strong, but not fatal, blow to the activists and neighbors opposed to slots casinos planned for Fishtown and South Philadelphia, the court granted the Gaming Control Board's request to halt a vote on the proposal to bar casinos from most city neighborhoods.
In a 15-line order that contained no explanation or rationale, the court also said it wanted lawyers for both sides to file legal briefs in an expedited fashion by April 27, which indicates it could issue a final order before May 15.
Yesterday's injunction suggests that the gaming board will likely prevail, attorneys for both sides agreed.
"The preliminary injunction is really troubling, because it endangers the entire referendum," said Maurice Mitts, an attorney for City Council, which unanimously approved the ballot question last month.
Members of Casino-Free Philadelphia, the organization that proposed the referendum, called the decision outrageous.
Daniel Hunter, Casino-Free Philadelphia coordinator, directed his anger at the gaming board, which he said "should hang their head in shame for stomping on democracy in order to get their way."
As for the court, Hunter said: "We're hopeful that they'll lift the injunction, though we're dismayed that they're threatening our right to vote."
Jeffrey Rotwitt, an attorney with Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel L.L.P., which represents one of the casinos, Foxwoods, said, "We believe the court has ruled appropriately," and contended that the injunction was "an indication that the court believes there is a likelihood of success" against the vote in its final decision.
Passage of the referendum question would effectively prevent casinos from being built in all but a few industrial areas, and undo the Gaming Control Board's awarding of licenses to the riverfront casinos, SugarHouse in Fishtown and Foxwoods in South Philadelphia.
The fight to stop casinos is likely to continue irrespective of what happens to the referendum.
The Supreme Court is also considering five appeals to the Gaming Control Board's licensing decisions for Philadelphia. If successful, those appeals would reopen the competition for Philadelphia's two licenses. Councilman Frank DiCicco has proposed several ordinances that would restrict casino development, and the city would have to approve zoning changes to allow for the Foxwoods and SugarHouse casinos to be built on their chosen sites.
In its lawsuit seeking to block the referendum, the board argued that the proposed charter change - to restrict casinos from within 1,500 feet of homes, schools or houses of worship - would improperly supersede state law by thwarting casino development in Philadelphia.
"The board had an obligation to seek this action on behalf of all commonwealth citizens who have long awaited the benefits of legalized gaming, including property-tax relief," Gaming Control Board spokesman Doug Harbach said yesterday.
Slots casinos were legalized in Pennsylvania in 2004 largely as a way to generate revenue for property-tax reduction. Two Philadelphia casinos, with up to 5,000 slot machines each, are counted on to produce an estimated 20 percent of the state's hoped-for $1 billion in tax relief. Licenses were authorized for 12 other slots sites around the state.
"We are obviously pleased that the Supreme Court has taken this action," said Dan Fee, a SugarHouse spokesman. "Casinos will bring thousands of new jobs and millions of new tax dollars for our schools. This is the right decision for the city, our schools and our workers."
The court was split on the vote by 5-2.
In a three-page dissent, Judge Thomas G. Saylor wrote that the decision "will likely have the effect of a final one," thereby preventing Philadelphians from voting on the proposal.
Saylor said that even though the Supreme Court is assigned to handle all appeals relating to the licensing and zoning of casinos, it did not have jurisdiction to stop the referendum. Such a challenge to the city's legislative process should proceed through the lower courts, he said.
He was joined in the dissent by Judge Ronald Castille, the former Philadelphia district attorney.
Paul Boni, the attorney for Casino-Free Philadelphia, said: "I was just angered that they didn't even issue a rationale or any reasoning on such a matter of public importance to hundreds of thousands of people, if not more."
DiCicco, the chief supporter of the referendum on Council, called the ruling "disappointing and shocking."
DiCicco said the decision "basically has legitimatized the gag order that I believe was imposed on the citizens of Philadelphia" by the casino licensing process controlled by the Gaming Control Board.
Ballots have already been printed for the May 15 primary with the referendum question included. If yesterday's court order stands, the referendum question would be blocked by a sticker, according to the Philadelphia County Board of Elections.
The key lines of the court's decision are as follows:
"The Gaming Control Board's request for a preliminary injunction enjoining [the city] from placing the proposed question on the ballot in the May 15th primary is granted."
Read coverage of slots in Pennsylvania, including the gaming board's lawsuit and the court's decision, at http://go.philly.com/slotsEndText