The high court’s ruling comes nearly 10 months to the day after St. Clair County Circuit Judge Charles Robinson declared the ordinance “valid and ... in compliance with Amendment No. 542.” Ashville passed an ordinance to allow electronic bingo in late December 2008.
Ashville Councilman Mike Sheffield said Friday that the city’s position all along was that if electronic bingo was legal, the city of Ashville would allow patrons to play bingo under the provision of the city’s ordinance.
“St. Clair County Circuit Judge Charles Robinson ruled it legal and now the Supreme Court has overruled him and we will abide by it,” Sheffield said. “The question now is how are other counties allowed to play? If the Supreme Court says it is illegal in Ashville, Ala., then it should be illegal everywhere else in Alabama.”
St. Clair County District Attorney Richard Minor filed a notice of appeal along with Sheriff Terry Surles almost immediately after Robinson’s ruling; the Supreme Court issued an order to temporarily stay the ruling in June, less than a week after new electronic gaming machines became operational at the Ashville American Legion post.
“This case has always been about the rule of law, and the interpretation of Act 91 and Act 93 of the Constitution of the state that regulate the operation of bingo games in St. Clair County,” Minor said late Friday. “Those define bingo as ‘that game commonly known as bingo, where numbers or symbols on a card are matched with numbers or symbols selected at random.’ Furthermore, the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision today specifically states that all local amendments throughout Alabama, excepting bingo from the general prohibition on lotteries, must be narrowly construed to encompass only the game commonly as bingo.
“Regardless of a moral position on bingo or electronic bingo, our sworn duty was to uphold the law as we interpret it. ... In our interpretation, ‘the game commonly known as bingo’ is that game that is played on a paper card.”
The ruling came on the same day in which law enforcement around the state attempted to seize bingo machines in multiple locations. A release from Gov. Bob Riley’s office called it “an opinion that again makes clear that the so-called ‘electronic bingo’ machines being used by casino bosses across the state are illegal.
“None of the slot machines being used at casinos in Alabama comes anywhere close to meeting this definition of bingo,” Riley said. “A person could play these machines blind-folded and still win. Although the previous court decisions were crystal clear that the machines are illegal, this decision absolutely slams the door shut on any argument that these slot machines qualify as bingo.
“The court’s decision is hardly a surprise. Anyone with any common sense knows that these slot machines are not bingo. Law enforcement officials across the state cannot turn their heads any longer to the illegal activity that is occurring. The gambling bosses have run out of excuses, and these slot-machine casinos must be shut down.”
Not every St. Clair County resident applauded the ruling. Ashville resident Vickey Massey wanted to know how the Supreme Court could shut down electronic bingo in St. Clair County and keep them operating in Macon and Houston counties.
“Within 30 miles of Montgomery there are four electronic bingo establishments in operation that the Supreme Court has not said a word about,” Massey said.
Massey owns property in Ashville that she wanted to use for Titan Gaming Inc., where she planned to build a hotel and bingo establishment that would have employed 200 people.
Surles said he never intended to pit himself against the city of Ashville. His only aim, he said, was to simply enforce the law.
“I don’t want anybody to get the idea that I’m against the town of Ashville,” he said. “On the other hand, I have to abide by the law, and the law is clear. And their ruling, from what they said, that the law is nowhere close to what they were insinuating.
“I felt like we were right. I abide by the judge’s ruling, but I felt like, in the back of my mind, after talking with our attorneys and everything, it was plain as day what it should be. Of course, I respect Judge Robinson Ñ have the utmost respect and I’ll always respect his decision.
“Two completely different interpretations; it just so happens we were right this time.”