Published: Saturday, August 7, 1993
Edition: THIRD
Page: A1
Byline: By STEVE CANNIZARO Staff writer


The Louisiana Supreme Court Friday all but ended the hopes of casino opponents when it upheld the 1992 state law authorizing a land-based gambling palace at the Rivergate site, as well as other recent laws permitting riverboat gambling, a lottery and video poker.

By a 6-0 vote, the high court said all four statutes are constitutional except a section of the casino law exempting casino employees from state civil service regulations. The court said that provision could be removed without affecting the rest of the law.

"I'm disappointed but not surprised in the least," said lawyer and lobbyist C.B. Forgotston of New Orleans, spokesman for a group opposed to the casino. "We did everything we could do. We just didn't have the politics on our side."

Forgotston has said he thought the influence of Gov. Edwards would be too great for the Supreme Court to overturn the law, which is supported by the governor.

"Technically, we can ask for a rehearing," Forgotston said, "but logic and reason would say you don't ask for a rehearing in a 6-0 decision."

A further appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court isn't possible, he said, "because there's no federal issue involved."

Edwards, who helped push the casino law through the 1992 Legislature, said he was not surprised by the ruling.

"It was certainly expected and, in my opinion, is within the keeping of the spirit of the law," Edwards said.

Daniel Robinowitz, part of a partnership led by resort developer Christopher Hemmeter and Caesars World that hopes to run the casino, said the ruling was welcome news.

"Naturally, we were very concerned about that. It would be a big relief to all of us in the gaming industry," Robinowitz said.

"We hope the process will continue to move forward so that the people of Louisiana can begin to benefit from the billions of dollars and thousands of jobs the casino project will bring to the state," he said.

Jazzville investor George Solomon, whose group also hopes to run the casino, said the decision was "wonderful."

"All this time and money that we've spent, it would have been bad if they hadn't" upheld the law, he said. "I know most of the lawyers in our group felt it would be upheld. I felt like this law would never have been passed if there was any doubt it was constitutional."

The state casino board is expected next week to choose one of the two groups competing for the exclusive right to operate the casino.

Forgotston said only an act of the Legislature could halt the casino now.

Even as copies of the 35-page opinion were being released, a group of lawmakers held a news conference at the proposed casino site and called for a special legislative session to repeal the casino law.

But House Speaker John Alario, D-Westwego, a casino supporter, gives them little chance of success.

"They had every attempt they wanted during the regular session to move legislation like that," Alario said. "They apparently didn't get very far. With that, I just don't see the need to go into a special session and spend taxpayers' money."

The Supreme Court ruling was in response to two lawsuits that were consolidated earlier this year. One challenged the casino law, while the other challenged the legality of casinos, riverboats and video poker - all legalized in the past three years.

The appeal by Forgotston's group relied primarily on the argument that the casino law violates a constitutional provision that the Legislature can't pass local laws, restricted to one city or parish, that define crimes. The group said the law was obviously local because it specified the exact site in New Orleans where gambling would be allowed and didn't allow casinos anywhere else in the state.

The state argued the casino law isn't a local ordinance but is a general law because revenue would go to the state and a casino would affect the entire state, not just New Orleans.

The Supreme Court agreed: "The mere fact that a statute's immediate application is limited to a particular locality does not alone render the statute a local or special law," the opinion said.

"The Legislature has determined that limited gaming activities are in the best interest of the state for the safety and welfare of its citizens," it said. "In reaching its conclusion the Legislature has properly exercised its authority."

Attorney Douglas Schmidt, handling the anti-gambling case, argued that it was the intent of lawmakers to forbid and suppress types of gambling that were not legal in the state in 1974, when the current state Constitution was drafted. Charitable bingo and horse racing were legal then.

But Leon Gary Jr., an assistant to state Attorney General Richard Ieyoub, argued that until the Legislature defined gambling, it was not obligated to suppress anything.

The Supreme Court, citing numerous precedents as well as transcripts of debate during the 1973 Constitutional Convention, reached basically the same conclusion.

"Considering the absence of a specific constitutional prohibition, we find that these four acts are well within the Legislature's police power . . .," the ruling said.

The casino case was heard in June by seven Supreme Court justices. But Justice Jack Watson of Lake Charles was forced by the other justices to step aside last week because he had been represented in a personal matter by an attorney who represented Hemmeter in the casino arguments.

Copyright The Times-Picayune Publishing Corp.