NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — While skill games must be shut down across Virginia starting Thursday, attorneys for a group of business owners fighting the ban are telling those who have machines not to remove them just yet.
A judge recused herself in a hearing scheduled for Wednesday in a suit challenging the ban as a possible violation of the Virginia human rights law. A hearing with a different judge is scheduled for Thursday.
Six business owners in Norfolk and Virginia Beach initially sued the state last week, arguing the ban was “discriminatory” as it affects primarily minorities. The business owners are hoping at the least for a temporary injunction that helps them keep the games on.
More than 30 owners of either restaurants, bars or convenience stores crammed into a courtroom in Norfolk Wednesday afternoon, hoping to hear a judge support their cause.
The games — which popped up unannounced several years ago — operate much like slot machines. But after the initial spin, players on skill machines can adjust the symbols to create a winning pattern to win additional money.
Those who host machines in their store can receive a cut of that money, around $3,000, according to Tommy Posilero, who owns Mona Lisa Restaurant and Bar in Norfolk. He is one of the plaintiffs in the case.
“With the pandemic going on, without these machines I probably would have closed down,” Posilero said following the hearing. “Got a lot of friends shutting down because they just can’t get enough employees … now these machines help us to pay for more employees. Pay for more customers in our bar.”
However, several powerful state lawmakers have pushed hard for a ban and haven’t been convinced they are good for the state. A deal cut by Gov. Ralph Northam (D-Va.) to tax and regulate the devices for one year, was not extended.
Del. Steve Heretick (D-Portsmouth) along with attorney Mike Joynes, believe the ban is motivated in part by powerful casino companies that already have similar games. This week, they introduced new evidence that they say proves the legislation was based on racial motivations.
Specifically, they point to Minority Leader Sen. Tommy Norment’s (R-James City County) comments in 2020 in which he said he “absolutely deplore(s) these machines.” He likened them to “Ali Baba and that story.”
“The character of Ali Baba is racial and derogatory against Asians and Indians,” Joynes said Wednesday. “And we already know convenience store customers are often ethnic minorities.”
Norment didn’t immediately return 10 On Your Side’s request for comment.
However, the new evidence led Heretick and Joynes to ask Chief Judge Mary Jane Hall to recuse herself Wednesday. Hall used to work in the same law office as Norment.
Former Norfolk City Councilman Randy Wright said he felt Hall’s recusal showed how seriously she took the case and called it a partial victory. Wright has helped to speak up for many of the business owners affected.
“Our message today is that these machines are not to be moved. They are to stay right where they are,” Wright said. “This is about the people, and we live to fight another day.”