Rejects claims of constitutional violations

Kentucky judge upholds state ban on controversial "gray-area" skill gaming machines

Rep. Killian Timoney, R-Nicholasville, sponsor of the bill outlawing "gray machines"
Reading time 1:42 min

A Kentucky judge has upheld the 2023 law banning "gray-area" skill games, rejecting supporters' claims that the ban violated sections of the state constitution.

The unlicensed machines, commonly found in convenience stores, gas stations, and bars across Kentucky, were prohibited by House Bill 594, which Governor Andy Beshear signed into law in March 2023. Previous legislative efforts to legalize and regulate these machines had failed, with opponents arguing that such a move would represent the largest expansion of gambling in the state's history.

Kentucky permits machine gaming solely at racetracks through historical horse racing (HHR) machines, legalized in 2021. Additionally, retail and digital sports betting were legalized in March 2023.

According to the Kentucky Lantern, Franklin County Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd rejected the claims made by supporters of skill games in his ruling. The judge issued a summary judgment at the request of the state attorney general's office, which had argued that the ban did not violate free speech or equal protection guarantees.

"It was entirely unreasonable, based on Kentucky's long history of regulating gambling... for an investor to expect that any machine operating on the fringe zones of legality as a gambling device would be exempt from subsequent regulation or prohibition by the legislature," Shepherd wrote in his ruling on June 28. 

He further stated that the law banning the games was a "lawful exercise of the legislature’s police power to regulate gambling for the legitimate governmental interest in addressing the social harms of unregulated forms of gambling."

Kentucky House Speaker David Osborne commented that the ruling "further confirms that these games were illegal and operating without any of the appropriate regulatory guidelines," according to the Associated Press. One of the plaintiffs' attorneys told the AP via email that his team would evaluate the ruling and might consider an appeal.

The ban received strong bipartisan support in the Kentucky legislature. Attorney General Russell Coleman defended House Bill 594, stating that lawmakers "took a bold and bipartisan step to protect Kentucky children and families when they outlawed gray machines." Coleman praised the ruling as a "resounding victory" for the state.

Representative Killian Timoney, the primary sponsor of HB 594, expressed confidence that the ruling would strengthen enforcement of the ban. "Russell Coleman will have a much clearer direction on how to relay messaging to the county attorneys pertaining to House Bill 594," Timoney said.

Lobbying efforts around HB 594 were intense during the 2023 legislative session, with nearly $600,000 spent on ads by opposing groups. The legislation sharply divided Republicans in the GOP-dominated legislature before it ultimately passed and was signed into law by Governor Beshear.

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