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Virginia senator involved in skill-game suit invokes special session to delay hearing

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Virginia senator involved in skill-game suit invokes special session to delay hearing

May 13, 2022 | 12:02 am ET
By Graham Moomaw
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Virginia senator involved in skill-game suit invokes special session to delay hearing
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Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, invoked his duties as a sitting lawmaker to request a delay in a high-profile lawsuit challenging the state’s ban on slots-like skill games, a move that appears to have bought his client valuable time to continue operating machines the General Assembly has tried to outlaw.

Though a judicial order granting the request hadn’t officially been entered as of mid-day Thursday, the Chatham Star-Tribune reported this week that Stanley’s request has been granted. Online records for the Greensville Circuit Court indicate a hearing scheduled for next week has been delayed to Nov. 2, giving skill machines another six-month reprieve.

Stanley is suing the state on behalf of former NASCAR driver Hermie Sadler, who owns several Virginia establishments, including the Sadler Travel Plaza in Emporia, that offer the legally disputed skill machines. Sadler Brothers Oil Company, the plaintiff in the suit, is also one of Stanley’s campaign donors.

The General Assembly passed a law that banned the machines last year, but a Greensville Circuit Court judge issued a temporary injunction in December allowing some machines to remain active until further court proceedings scheduled for this month.

On April 15, Stanley sent the judge overseeing the case a letter saying his responsibilities as a senator could complicate his ability to move forward with a May 18 hearing on whether the injunction should be made permanent. He asked that the matter be rescheduled for late summer or early fall, and court filings show the office of Attorney General Jason Miyares agreed with the request.

Stanley’s letter cited the General Assembly’s ongoing special session, which so far has required little actual work in Richmond and is almost entirely contingent on an unfinished budget a small group of legislators is working out in private. The legislature took no action this year on skill games, but Stanley suggested the special session and budget negotiations could potentially impact the skill-game industry.

He also raised the possibility of formally invoking his privileges as a lawmaker to force a delay in the hearing, citing a controversial state law that gives attorneys who serve in the General Assembly the ability to postpone court proceedings “as a matter of right” when the legislature is in session.

“Moreover, the special session may interfere with my availability to prepare for and appear at the final hearing as currently scheduled, which could require me to have no other choice but to invoke Virginia Code Section 30-5,” Stanley wrote.

In an interview Thursday evening, Stanley said both sides in the case agreed to the delay “for the sake of judicial economy” and insisted casually mentioning 30-5 in a letter did not amount to using his status as a lawmaker to force a delay beneficial to his client.

“Both parties agreed to this,” Stanley said. “I can tell you at no time did I threaten to invoke 30-5 or else. That was just a consideration we could be heading toward trial here in a few weeks and we get called back into session.”

Stanley said he’s been hearing “noise” that something dealing with skill games could be inserted into the pending budget, but he couldn’t specify exactly what that might be.

“I kept hearing in the wind that potentially they were trying to legislate skill games in the budget language,” he said. “Those were not just speculations, it was coming from people who would know.”

The delay, Stanley said, avoids complications in the case and will allow the litigation to proceed when the state’s posture on skill games is clearer. He also noted the 30-5 law doesn’t empower him to extend a court injunction unless the court agrees it’s appropriate.

Stanley acknowledged the delay in the case helps Sadler by allowing his machines to remain in use, but he insisted he would’ve prevailed at the hearing had it gone forward.

“So they’d be on anyway,” he said.

When asked why the state agreed to postpone the case, a Miyares spokeswoman said the attorney general’s office would not comment on pending litigation.

During his political campaign last year, Miyares attended a meet-and-greet hosted at the Sadler Travel Plaza, according to a Facebook post by the Brunswick County Republican Committee that featured a photo of Miyares and other Republicans giving a thumbs-up by the truck stop’s sign.

Skill machines rapidly spread throughout Virginia convenience stores and gas stations in the last few years, operating in a legal gray area for much of their existence in the state.

Skill-game proponents argue the machines involve just enough skill to avoid gambling restrictions and give small business owners a chance to profit in an industry dominated by bigger, out-of-state gambling interests. Critics say skill-game companies exploited a loophole to set up a lucrative gambling venture in Virginia that went largely unregulated and untaxed until lawmakers moved to crack down.

The legislature moved to ban the machines in 2020, but former Gov. Ralph Northam allowed them to continue for a year to raise money for a COVID-19 relief fund. But Northam insisted on getting rid of the machines in 2021, and the ban took effect on July 1.

The special powers granted to lawyers in the General Assembly have come under increasing scrutiny in recent year, with critics accusing some lawmakers of abusing the privilege to gain an upper hand for paying clients.

In 2020, the Associated Press reported that Del. Jeff Campbell, R-Smyth, had used his status as a legislator to repeatedly delay a domestic violence case against one of his clients. Campbell also invoked the privilege to cause lengthy delays in a case accusing the Smyth County Board of Supervisors of violating open-meeting laws, according to the AP.

The lawsuit Stanley and others are bringing on Sadler’s behalf argues, in part, that the ban on skill games violates free speech by singling out digital games for their resemblance to slots while allowing other skill-based arcade games to continue.