Judge denies business owners’ plea for injunction to halt Virginia skill games ban

Virginia Politics

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — Despite efforts from a group of business owners, skill games will remain shut down in Virginia.

A judge has denied a request from a group of Virginia business owners for an injunction that would allow the continued operation of skill games at their establishments.

Skill games, which are slot machine-like devices found in convenience stores and some other businesses, are now banned under Virginia law as of Thursday, July 1.

The ruling comes after the group filed a lawsuit challenging the ban, calling it discriminatory and a violation of Virginia human rights law because many businesses operating skill games are owned by ethnic and religious minorities.

However, the request was unsuccessful. In Norfolk Circuit Court Friday, a judge issued an opinion that declined to provide a temporary injunction allowing the games to stay on. The opinion said the business owners did not prove that they would be “irreparably harmed,” nor that halting the ban would be in the best interest of the public.

Former Norfolk Councilman Randy Wright — who has been speaking on behalf of some of the business owners who have skill machines — released a statement on the judge’s decision.

“We will not give up, we’re exploring our options. Those options will not exclude further legal possibilities. We plan to be a factor in the upcoming election in November. We will conduct a grassroots campaign, second to none. We cannot allow bigotry and discrimination to our Asian Americans. We will fight for their rights and protect against slanderous statements from anybody!” he wrote.

The judge said a preliminary injunction can only be issued if certain things are established by the plaintiff, including a likelihood that they will suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief, and that an injunction is in the public interest.

The opinion says business owners failed to prove both matters. The judge argued that, while the plaintiffs said the skill games largely helped their small businesses stay afloat during the coronavirus pandemic, restrictions have mostly lifted and businesses can resume regular operation. The judge also said the plaintiffs’ statement that skill games kept convenience stores open in food deserts — areas where grocery stores are absent — didn’t prove that skill games were necessary for the continued availability of necessities in food deserts.

Plaintiffs must also establish a likelihood of the success of the case’s merits. Under that section, the judge said the business owners failed to prove the Commonwealth is a “person,” which necessary in cases involving the Virginia Human Rights Act.

In addition, they must show the “balance of equities tips” in their favor, meaning the plaintiffs’ interest in the injunction outweigh the hardships it would have on the defendant. The judge said if the ban is halted, the state wouldn’t benefit because it’s now illegal as of July 1 for the state to tax and regulate the machines. Previously, the state benefitted from the operation of skill machines; Gov. Ralph Northam also came up with a proposal during the pandemic to establish a COVID-19 fund by taxing and regulating the devices for one year.

The plaintiff must establish all four facts for the injunction to be issued.

The judge’s refusal to issue an injunction Friday is the latest development in a long political debate over skill games in Virginia.

Some state lawmakers have pushed for the ban with the argument that the machines aren’t good for the state.

However, those in favor of keeping the machines have said they think competition with casino companies, which have similar games, may be a motivation for the ban.

The penalty for operating unregulated skill games is now a $25,000 fine and the state or locality can also seek the money within the devices.

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