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Is Gambling Illegal in Alabama?comment (0)

February 11, 2010

By Jim Williams


Section 65 of the Alabama Constitution prohibits the Legislature from authorizing “lotteries or gift enterprises for any purposes” and requires laws against them.

The Legislature wrote Section 13A-12-20 of the criminal code in 1977. It defines a lottery as “unlawful gambling,” in which “gambling” involves risking something of value on the outcome of a contest of chance.

Ordinary citizens reading these general provisions of law might conclude that gambling is unlawful in our state — but it’s not that simple. Alabama lawmakers have developed a way of avoiding either-or choices.

Even if the constitution states a general rule such as this, they often authorize voters to approve a local constitutional amendment that carves out an exception for a single county or community. If possible, they may pass a local act that doesn’t require a vote of the people. The term “often” is an understatement here. There are hundreds of local constitutional amendments and thousands of local acts of the Legislature.

This means that the general requirements of law may apply fully, partially or not at all in a given county or community.

There’s no way to know without digging through all the laws that might apply. Unfortunately only a tiny fraction of local acts are in the code, so you have to find them in a law library.

Furthermore the process of carving out local exceptions involves “legislative courtesy,” whereby the Legislature defers to the wishes of lawmakers from a given county on local bills.

There may well be no consistency in the law from one county to another.

It’s confusing in the extreme. Lawyers and judges may disagree over how to apply the conflicting terms of general and local laws and even constitutional provisions. The current controversy over gambling illustrates this problem. While Section 65 of the constitution and the criminal code outlaw gambling, voters have approved 19 local constitutional amendments that permit varying versions of “bingo” within all or parts of 16 counties.

Only one of these amendments has a definition of “bingo;” only two mention an “electronic” or “media” version. Only nonprofit organizations can operate bingo in most of the counties, but three allow private clubs, too.

Most of the amendments disallow operating contracts with an outside organization; two specifically allow them.

Sometimes counties, municipalities or even sheriffs write the rules; in other cases, the Legislature can. No taxes on bingo are allowed in one county; other amendments are silent on this. And so on. It’s no wonder that state and even federal courts are heavily involved in this controversy today.

It is an interesting question whether the Legislature had the power to authorize votes on local bingo amendments at all since Section 65 of the constitution specifically denies authority over lotteries or gift enterprises. If not, what is the status of the 19 local amendments? The root cause of this issue is a flawed way of doing the people’s legislative business. Almost 40 years ago, the people of South Carolina got tired of their Legislature operating in this way and passed a constitutional amendment that stated simply: “No laws for a specific county shall be enacted.”

If you would like to read and compare the provisions of the constitution and The Code of Alabama mentioned in this column, then go to http://parca.samford.edu/bingo.html.

EDITOR’S NOTE — Jim Williams is executive director for the nonprofit, nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama.

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