By David Madden

By David Madden

TRENTON, N.J. (CBS) — A federal judge in Trenton has shot down New Jersey’s efforts to legalize sports betting at casinos and racetracks across the state.

Voters in the Garden State approved the concept in a referendum, but proponents have been beaten back by pro sports leagues and the NCAA.

Judge Michael Shipp sided with a 21-year-old federal law that restricts sports betting to four states: Nevada, Delaware, Oregon, and Montana.

“This law is unconstitutional on its face,” state senator Raymond Lesniak complained today.  “The judge really punted in this regard, and couldn’t bring himself to say that Congress passed a law so blatantly unconstitutional.”

The judge suggested that proponents should make an attempt to repeal or change the law, but previous efforts to do that have gotten nowhere.

Lesniak says this case will proceed next to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, where it could take a year or so to play out.

After that, perhaps, the US Supreme Court.

Under Lesniak’s proposed plan, bets wouldn’t be taken on games involving New Jersey colleges or college games played in the state.

The NFL, NHL, NBA, Major League Baseball and the NCAA sued the state last year, and the NCAA has moved several of its championship events out of New Jersey because of the sports betting law (see previous story).

New Jersey has attacked the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, or PASPA, on several constitutional levels.  In filings, the state has argued the law unfairly “grandfathered” that four states that already had some form of sports gambling.

New Jersey said the law violated state sovereignty and equal protection provisions, and trampled the authority of state legislatures under the 10th Amendment.

On Thursday, Shipp said that although some of the questions raised in the case were novel; “judicial intervention is generally unwarranted no matter how unwise a court considers a policy decision of the legislative branch,” he wrote. “As such, to the extent the people of New Jersey disagree with PASPA, their remedy is not through passage of a state law or through the judiciary, but through the repeal or amendment of PASPA in Congress.”

In arguments earlier this month, US attorney Paul Fishman, representing the Justice Department, said the Constitution empowers Congress to regulate an interstate industry such as sports gambling and to treat states differently.

Attorneys for the leagues have said that PASPA doesn’t supersede the authority of state legislatures because it doesn’t require any affirmative actions such as enacting laws.

New Jersey was given a special dispensation by Congress to approve sports gambling at its casinos within a year in the early ’90s, but didn’t do so.

Billions of dollars are bet legally each year on sports in Nevada, and experts estimate tens or even hundreds of billions are wagered illegally through bookmakers.