WASHINGTON — Sports has long been the place politicians go to curry favor with constituents. They show up to games for a live shot on the Jumbotron or to rub elbows with athletes to affirm their regular-guy bona fides.
Finishing a second and final term marred by scandals and plunging popularity, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey will arrive here on Monday looking to sports for something else: a legacy-defining victory.
Christie is coming to Washington for oral arguments before the Supreme Court in a case that could legalize sports betting in New Jersey, and the governor made clear last week that the stakes give this trip special, personal meaning.
“It’s Christie vs. the N.C.A.A.,” he said at an event in Newark on Wednesday, when asked why he would be traveling to the arguments in person. Then he added facetiously, “It would be nice if the litigants were there.”
Christie has become something of a punch line in politics the past year, even when delving into sports. He cozied up to Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys and a bitter rival to fans of the Giants and Philadelphia Eagles, at a football game. He got in the face of a heckler at a Chicago Cubs game. When he made an impressive one-handed catch of a foul ball at a Mets game, he was booed.
Yet the legal case, which could bring the United States a step closer to legalized sports betting nationwide, gives the governor a chance deliver a win to millions of Americans itching to bet legally on sports.
“I’ve always believed that leadership is about taking risks,” Mr. Christie said, adding that he was “cautiously optimistic” that his side would prevail. “If you’re unwilling to take risks, then you’re never going to achieve great things. And sometimes that means you take risks and the risk doesn’t work out. But we take educated risks.”
The case centers on a law, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, or Paspa, passed in 1992. It prohibits states from offering betting on competitions involving amateur or professional athletes.
The law grandfathered in four states that already had allowed sports gambling and created an exception for New Jersey, which was allowed one year after Paspa went into effect to set up a sports betting system.
New Jersey failed to take advantage of the exception. Yet in 2011, New Jersey residents voted to amend the state constitution and allow the legislature to legalize sports betting, and it did so the next year. The N.C.A.A. and the four major professional sports leagues sued, arguing the law violated Paspa. A series of federal courts agreed, and the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
The New Jersey legislature tried a new tactic in 2014, passing a law that partially repealed prohibitions on sports betting, believing that Paspa only prohibited the affirmative legalization of sports betting. Once again the N.C.A.A. and major professional sports leagues sued, and once again federal courts ruled against New Jersey.
But earlier this year, the Supreme Court surprised legal observers. Although the lower courts and the acting solicitor general for the United States, who asked the Supreme Court not to review the case, were all in agreement, the Supreme Court decided to hear the Christie administration’s challenge of Paspa anyway.
“It’s a very, very important case with respect to the division of authority in our system of government, between the federal government and state sovereign governments,” said Ted Olson, the attorney who will represent New Jersey in court on Monday.
Professional sports leagues, recognizing the ubiquity of illicit sports betting, have begun altering their longstanding stances against legalized sports betting, which they had feared might lead to game-fixing and other cheating. There is now an N.H.L. team playing in Las Vegas, and an N.F.L. team will soon join them. The N.B.A. is part of the group suing New Jersey, but in 2014 its commissioner, Adam Silver, wrote an Op-Ed article in The New York Times arguing for the legalization of sports betting.
“Sports betting should be brought out of the underground and into the sunlight where it can be appropriately monitored and regulated,” Silver wrote.
If the Supreme Court rules in favor of New Jersey, it could invalidate Paspa entirely and therefore allow every state to pass laws legalizing sports betting, or it could leave Paspa intact but rule that New Jersey’s law does not violate it. Olson said he does not believe such a narrow ruling is likely.
Of course, New Jersey has lost repeatedly, and should it fail again, it might only further damage Christie’s rapport with his constituents.
His standing was hurt by the scandal known as Bridgegate in which two former allies were sentenced to prison for their role in closing access lanes to the George Washington Bridge as political payback against a Democratic mayor. The episode damaged Christie’s aspirations to be president and to serve in the Trump administration.
Last summer, pictures of Christie lounging in a chair on a state beach closed to the public during a government shutdown went viral and led to much condemnation.
The state has billed the taxpayers millions of dollars in legal fees fighting the battle to legalize sports betting.
To the governor, win or lose, it’s been a worthwhile bet, and he appears to have bipartisan support.
In a blue state that still counts a vocal Republican minority, the issue of sports betting has been a rare unifying issue. Nearly every member of the Congressional delegation — four Republicans and eight Democrats — has supported the effort spawned by the Christie administration to legalize sports betting in the state following a 2011 referendum.
“This is not a partisan issue, it’s just a good-for-Jersey issue,” said Representative Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat from northern New Jersey. “And I can’t find anyone who is knocking on my door saying, Don’t do this. People are knocking on our door and saying get this done. This could be a clear win for New Jersey.”
Philip D. Murphy, a Democrat who takes office as governor on Jan. 16, also supports the effort.
The last time there was such unity among the federal and state delegation was in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and even that had a defector — former Representative Scott Garrett — who did not sign an initial letter asking for federal assistance.
Any decision in the case will not be reached until the spring, well after Christie has left office. And his sheer unpopularity in the state means the die may already be cast on his legacy.
“The reality is, even if this were to be successful, given the public perception of him, I’m not sure that he would even garner the credit that perhaps he deserves because the public is so soured on him,” said Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science at Montclair State University.
In poll after poll, Christie’s approval ratings have hovered in the midteens, historically low for the once popular governor. But the state also supported legalizing gambling by a 2-to-1 margin in 2011, and a victory would likely be viewed favorably by his state.
And, in Christie’s eyes, the sports leagues are the ones keeping his name in the spotlight.
“They picked this fight, not me,” he told HBO Sports in October. “I was just doing the job of governor, following the referendum of the people of my state and signing a law. They sued me.”