Skill games operators in Virginia can turn their games back on for now, while a lawsuit over Virginia’s skill games ban proceeds. On Monday, Greenville Circuit Court Judge Louis Lerner issued a temporary injunction in Sadler v. Northam.
“We had a great victory yesterday, but our fight is not over. The injunction allows skill game operators to turn their machines back on immediately. It is now up to elected officials in Virginia to craft a permanent solution that supports small businesses like Mr. Sadler’s,” said Stanley Law Group spokesperson Autumn Johnson.
Senator Bill Stanley (R-Franklin) is representing NASCAR driver Hermie Sadler in his battle against the ban; Sadler operates a truck stop and similar businesses. Virginia law defines skill games as devices that require coins, tickets or similar objects to play, with results dependent on the skill of players and that may give a prize to the player as a result. Skill games can be video-based or arcade-style games; the key is that they require an operator’s skill to win a prize. The law includes an exemption for skill games at family entertainment centers that market their business to children.
In 2020, the Virginia General Assembly outlawed skill games. However, Governor Ralph Northam and the legislature amended the ban to allow the state to tax the games to provide revenue for the COVID Relief fund, with the ban postponed until July 1, 2021. In the wake of that ban, industry lobbyists have begun proposing alternatives like video game terminals. Allegations of illegal skill games have begun popping up, and some legislators are pushing for legalizing the machines. Multiple lawsuits have been filed across Virginia against the bans, including two lawsuits represented by outgoing Delegate Steve Heretick (D-Portsmouth.) Advocates argue that the ban harms small business owners while big gambling efforts like casinos have been facilitated by legislators.
“In 2022 we will have a new General Assembly and I expect that you’ll have skill games and VGT laws passed,” Senator Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond) said in an August 2021 press conference.
The issue doesn’t fall along party lines; both Senate Minority Leader Thomas Norment (R-James City) and Senate Finance Chair Janet Howell (D-Fairfax) have spoken against skill games.
In the lawsuit, Stanley argues that the games fall under free speech protections.
“See, it’s not like a total ban on skill games. Skill games are allowed as long as you’re a family entertainment center advertising — and advertising is free speech — to families with children,” Stanley told The Star in October.
“The government argued that the ban on skill games is not a free speech issue and that the games were all about profit,” Johnson told The Star on Tuesday. “[That] was vague and unconstitutional. We argued that the games are afforded free speech protection, since they have narratives and themes and that the law was an infringement. The judge agreed.”
Johnson said, “The injunction will remain in place until a declaratory judgment hearing in May.”
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Eric Burk is a reporter at The Virginia Star and The Star News Network. Email tips to [email protected].