Alabama Scene

Bingo decision affects only Walker County, but more court action possible

Bob Martin is editor and publisher of The Montgomery Independent E-mail: bob@montgomery

Bob Martin is editor and publisher of The Montgomery Independent E-mail: bob@montgomery

Gov. Bob Riley did just about everything he could, except climb the dome of the State Supreme Court and threaten to drop an explosive device inside, to keep Circuit Judge Robert Vance of Birmingham from being assigned to handle the disposition of electronic bingo litigation in Walker County.

He schmoozed with some of the justices over coffee on visits down Dexter Avenue at the court’s chambers, trying to get them to override the appointment of Vance, made by Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb. While on a trip to Washington he even telephoned one or more of the justices when told that it appeared they weren’t going to challenge Cobb’s appointment of Vance. Suddenly, after Riley’s call or calls, the votes changed and it appeared that Cobb’s appointment of Vance would be overridden by a majority of the associate justices.

During this time, reporters at The Independent
began telephoning and e-mailing the justices asking if the governor or any of his lawyers had attempted to influence the removal of Judge Vance and the appointment of a replacement judge. We also asked of the justices with whom we talked or emailed if they knew of or had heard about any improper communications from the governor concerning the Vance appointment.

I don’t know what happened, but the attempt to remove Judge Vance ended with a unanimous vote by the high court upholding Cobb’s appointment. Last week, Judge Vance issued his opinion with regard to bingo operations in Walker County. It favored the governor’s position and that of the Walker County district attorney, who initiated the case, but affects no other county in the state.

Vance ruled that Constitutional Amendment No. 549, relating only to the areas outside the corporate limits of Jasper in Walker County, does not permit electronic versions of bingo.

His opinion was based primarily on the fact that the enabling legislation for the amendment referenced aspects of the game such as paper cards and that the obvious intent of the Legislature and the voters back in 1992 was only to authorize the traditional game of bingo and that “the use of advanced technology to automate bingo, enabling machines, rather than humans, to play the game – was very much the exception rather than the rule,” back then.

“Putting aside the law as it stood in 1992, the evidence shows that the game of bingo itself was much different from what is currently being played,” Vance wrote.

Vance also wrote that the language of the Walker County amendment “is functionally similar, if not identical, to that of earlier amendments” and cited bingo amendments for Jefferson, Madison, Montgomery, Mobile, Etowah, Calhoun and St. Clair counties, all ratified before 1993. Significantly, he did not mention Macon, Greene or Lowndes counties where current electronic bingo operations exist under amendments ratified over a decade later.

“In none of these (pre-1993) amendments is there an explicit definition of bingo and there is no language suggesting that electronic bingo was intended or even envisioned,” he said, adding that one would expect if the Legislature and the voters wanted something new to account for the technological changes in gaming that testimony has shown were occurring at about that time, the language of Amendment 549 would have been drafted to reflect such changes.

In his opinion, Vance clearly recognized that the game of bingo has changed dramatically since the Walker County law was adopted in 1992, 11 years before the approval of amendments for Macon and Green counties. His comments were similar to the language of Atty. Gen. Troy King’s findings in his six-month review of gambling in Alabama in 2004. King found that electronic gaming at VictoryLand in Macon County and Greentrack in Green County is operated “under valid constitutional amendments, but at most other locations is operated under flawed constitutional amendments at other locations.” Neither he nor any other state agency has any regulatory authority over gaming on Indian lands at Atmore, Wetumpka, or Montgomery.

Now back to the governor, who is attempting at this point to intervene in a bingo case out of St. Clair County by asking the State Supreme Court use that case to decide the issues regarding electronic bingo for the entire state. A minor problem appears to have arisen. There are no electronic bingo devices in St. Clair County.

The court, however, has agreed to allow Riley’s intervention in the case and agreed to an expedited appeal process. This could induce the governor to visit for coffee more frequently down Dexter Avenue.

Please remember governor, you can’t whisper in their ears. That’s cause for recusal, perhaps removal.