East Coast gamblers looking to hit the slots at a new gambling venue in Maryland now will have to wait until at least November to fill their plastic cups with quarters. When a new zoning bill was passed by the Anne Arundel County Council in December 2009, it looked like Maryland would soon be known as much for slots as for horse racing. But a recent ruling by the Maryland Court of Appeals has given opponents of the gambling venue another roll of the dice.
The zoning bill, signed by County Executive John R. Leopold, opened the door for the development of a casino in an unusual location: the Anne Arundel Mills Mall, located just south of Baltimore. Shortly after passage of the bill, however, opponents commenced a campaign to challenge the casino’s development via a public referendum, which they hoped to get on the ballot as part of the November 2010 elections. In order to get the bill on the ballot, the opponents of the casino first needed to collect signatures on a petition in excess of 10% of the number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. In this case, the lucky number was 19,000 signatures.
Opponents of the casino bill include the community group Stop Slots at Arundel Mills Mall, which cites traffic congestion and erosion of a “family-friendly” atmosphere as grounds for opposing the construction, and the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates the Laurel Park Racetrack and funded the petition drive. Together, they managed to collect over 40,000 signatures in support of their petition; of these, about 23,000 of them were accepted as valid by the Anne Arundel County Board of Elections.
In response to the petition, the developers – Cordish Cos., and more specifically, PPE Casino Resorts Maryland, LLC (“PPE”), a subsidiary of Cordish – decided to double down. In February 2010, PPE sued the elections board and contested the process by which the petition signatures were verified. At a June trial before the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, lawyers for PPE contended that many of the signatures had defects such as missing or incomplete dates, signatures not exactly matching the printed name and, in one case, a person who appeared to sign as both husband and wife. Presiding Judge Ronald A. Silkworth, however, refused to allow testimony by a handwriting expert in support of PPE’s argument that as many as one in three of the approved signatures were forged or fraudulent, on the ground that the proceeding was a judicial review of an administrative ruling in which no additional evidence is allowed.
A few weeks following the completion of the trial, Judge Silkworth blocked the referendum on technical grounds completely unrelated to the alleged irregularities in the petition. Despite the anti-slots group’s argument that the bill was nothing more than a zoning law, Judge Silkworth relied onKelly v. Marylanders for Sports Sanity, Inc. and ruled that the bill was in fact part of a larger and inseparable, state appropriations package, which could not be put to a referendum. According to Maryland law, “under both reserved powers of referendum, a law that is both an appropriation and for maintaining the government may not be subject to referendum.”
Gamblers looking to hit the jackpot were quickly disappointed, however. Opponents of the casino filed an appeal, which was heard by the Maryland Court of Appeals on July 20. Just hours after closing arguments, the appeals court summarily overturned Judge Silkworth’s decision in an order that will be expanded upon in a later opinion.
Preparations are already under way to include the zoning bill referendum on the November ballot, when Anne Arundel County voters will get their chance to call the shot.