|The Georgia Supreme Court yesterday witnessed another battle between the state and two gaming companies.|
Georgia voted to ban video poker last September. But two gaming companies sued the state, saying the law is too broad and outlaws games that have been not only legal but also regulated by the Legislature.
In January, a Fulton County Superior Court judge agreed with the gaming companies, calling the law 'arbitrary, overbroad and overinclusive.'
Yesterday, the Georgia Supreme Court heard arguments in the state's appeal.
'It's frustrating because we were really hoping that the industry would be completely out of here by the end of June,' said Sen. Mike Beatty, R-Jefferson, who led the charge against video poker after his northeast Georgia district was swamped by games from South Carolina, where they were outlawed in 2000.
In Georgia, it is technically illegal to use video games such as Pot O' Gold and Cherry Master to award cash prizes. But a report by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation last year said many machine operators ignore that law. The report revealed that video poker is a $1 billion industry in the state and linked it to other crimes, including robbery and prostitution.
The General Assembly's vote would have made it illegal to play the games as of Jan. 1 and would have given owners until June to get rid of the machines.
Game World Inc. and Old South Amusements sued. Both companies said they had invested more than $1 million in the games.
In court documents, their lawyers also claim that the act 'could apply to numerous machines not intended to be made illegal ... including but not limited to Tic-Tac-Toe games, pinball machines with video poker or lineup components and other similar machines.'
Judge John J. Goger seemed to agree. 'However well-intentioned this legislation may be, it must be doomed,' he wrote in his January ruling. 'The law criminalizes a game when it is being played and operated as a game....'
Assistant Attorney General Chris Brasher, writing for the state, said the law's broad language was necessary because of the 'virtually limitless' number of ways gambling games can be altered to get around it. The images of playing cards in games have been replaced by animals, fantasy characters and other symbols to avoid laws targeting poker, he wrote.
Legal experts say the companies have a chance of success with the argument that the state is unfairly taking once-legal property. Similar cases have resulted in rulings in the plaintiffs' favor.
'There probably is precedent for the proposition that making unlawful a business that is currently in operation without any warning can be a taking,' said Randy Beck, a law professor at the University of Georgia.