COLUMBIA - Sen. Tom Davis warned Tuesday that if legislators block his bill aimed at allowing retirees to legally play bridge, he'll sue to get South Carolina's centuries-old antigambling law thrown out altogether.
Davis, an attorney, said he developed the bill after state police warned a manager at Sun City Hilton Head last May that the bridge and canasta social clubs advertised for residents violated state law. That prompted management of the 14,000-resident retiree community to remove all signs and tell the clubs they could no longer play in community game rooms.
"Several hundred clubs in Sun City are outraged over this," said Davis, R-Beaufort, adding that planned developments throughout his districts have stopped hosting bridge tournaments. "Their lifestyle is being affected for a completely silly reason."
A message left Tuesday with Sun City management was not immediately returned.
Davis' bill specifies that members of social clubs or groups can legally gather at someone's home or community clubhouse to play games such as canasta, bridge and mahjong.
It represents legislators' latest attempt to change the state's 1802 antigambling laws that, if read literally, ban any game with cards or dice.
Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell tried unsuccessfully when he was in the Senate to legalize friendly poker games following a 2006 raid on a poker game in Mount Pleasant, where 22 players were arrested.
Some legislators and faith-based groups have opposed any change over concerns about unintended consequences. They remind lawmakers that a two-word change to state law in 1986 ushered in the video poker industry, which the Legislature managed to ban in 2000 after a decade of fighting and numerous court cases.
Oran Smith of the Palmetto Family Council said his group shares Davis' goal.
"It's silly to make that illegal," he said of retirees' games. But the Senate needs to be very careful, he added, "because of our dark heritage when it comes to the drafting of gambling legislation."
Davis plans to offer an amendment to his bill that would ban any betting. His measure, introduced last June, was on the agenda of Tuesday's Judiciary Committee meeting, but committee members did not take it up.
Davis has a legal weapon McConnell didn't have: a state Supreme Court decision that Davis calls a "game-changer."
The state's high court ruled in November 2012 that a lower court erred in throwing out the convictions of the Mount Pleasant poker players. The justices found the players couldn't challenge the law because their game was "not your penny ante game of poker" but rather an organized card game whose players were recruited over the Internet.
However, Chief Justice Jean Toal wrote in her opinion she believes the law is unconstitutional.
It's "hopelessly outdated, as it applies to any gaming activity (including all card games) played in a residential home whether wagering occurs or not," she wrote. "This section expired in usefulness long ago." She went on to "charge the Legislature to modernize" the law.
Davis said he's taking Toal up on the invitation. If the legislation stalls, he said, he'll sue on behalf of his constituents' social clubs to get the entire law declared unconstitutional. The gambling foes who have fought to keep the law in place can either "go ahead with a surgeon scalpel" and modernize it to specifically accommodate the social clubs or face the prospect of it being thrown out entirely.
"I want to amend it and modernize it as instructed, but one way or the other, I'm going to get some relief here," he said. "I see it as an extension of my legislative service, getting a result for my constituency."
Davis said he would seek no money in the lawsuit, just a judgment.
Smith said the threat is not helpful.
"We need to work through the legislative process before we try to muscle people around," he said.
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