A Washington County judge ruled yesterday that a state law under which daily numbers gambling has thrived in Western Maryland's fraternal clubs and veterans posts is "unconstitutional and void."
At the same time, Circuit Court Judge John P. Corderman dismissed charges of illegal gambling brought against a Hagerstown tavern owner and two of his bartenders. The judge agreed with them that the law exempting the clubs from the general gambling prohibition unconstitutionally discriminates against private taverns, restaurants and banquet facilities.
Corderman, as a state senator in 1975, sponsored that exemption for clubs that promised to donate the proceeds to charity. But based on evidence in the case, he wrote, "the parsimony" of some of the clubs would "make Ebeneezer Scrooge look like a philanthropist in comparison."
The immediate impact of the ruling was unclear. Lawyers said it would appear to ban club gambling in Washington County, and possibly the two other counties of Allegany and Garrett, which compose the Western Maryland circuit, unless an appeal is filed and the judge's decision is set aside pending an appellate ruling.
State's Attorney Kenneth Long could not be reached for comment on whether he intends to appeal the ruling.
"If the ruling stands, we may have to get involved in inventing the wheel," said Del. Paul Muldowney (D-Washington), chairman of the county delegation to the General Assembly, which is expected to review state gambling laws this year. "The fallout hasn't hit the ground, yet."
In his ruling, Corderman said, "It is clear that the clubs have engaged in cost-cutting and subsidizing social events with gambling proceeds. They've held themselves out as private organizations while they allow the public to come in . . . . "
Some of the fraternal clubs and veterans posts, he said, have interpreted the legislative exemption "to conduct unlimited gambling activities for their own gain while in competition with private enterprise."
Defendant Roy M. Snyder, owner of the Locker Room Stag Bar, said that without offering the numbers game -- packets of five numbers pulled from glass containers known as "tip jars" -- he could not compete with the clubs. The packets sell for $1. Winning numbers pay up to $10 immediately and $100 after the last batch is sold.
To bolster his case, the defendants' lawyer subpoenaed club officials and records. Courtroom disclosures showed that the clubs had donated to charity an average of 5 percent of several million dollars in gambling revenues. Evidence showed they used the funds largely to subsidize lower food and beverage prices and to build or expand their facilities.
"The club association has always kept quiet about this, and that's what we intend to do," said Ralph Meyers, president of the 22-member Washington County Club Association from his Williamsport American Legion post, which advertises "Fine Food and Beverages" on a large sign outside its new building.
Kenneth Mackley, the lawyer who fashioned the discrimination defense, predicted that, while the immediate impact of the ruling may be limited to one circuit or one court, "you can bet every defense lawyer in other counties will be using this defense. A lot of tavern owners and their attorneys will say, 'Bring the jars out of the closet and put 'em on the bars.'"
Del. Joseph E. Owens (D-Montgomery), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which has previously balked at approving changes in the gambling laws, said the ruling makes reform legislation "more likely to pass" the General Assembly.