Seminole Tribe Says Florida Cardroom Sports Betting Challenges Are ‘Strawmen’

Posted on: September 1, 2023, 10:05h. 

Last updated on: September 1, 2023, 02:00h.

The Seminole Tribe of Florida says the federal lawsuit challenging its Class III compact — including online sports betting privileges that the Hard Rock owner reached with Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in 2021 — has no merit and should be dismissed.

Seminole Tribe sports betting Florida tribal gaming
The Florida State Seminoles kick off their 2023 season ranked eighth in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. But Floridians still can’t bet on the team’s success via a regulated sportsbook. The Seminole Tribe and Gov. Ron DeSantis hope to soon remedy that via a federal court in DC. (Image: Getty)

DeSantis and the powerful tribe — which holds the exclusive rights in Florida to house-banked table games and slot machines outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties — reached a new compact in April 2021 that afforded the Seminoles online sports betting rights, plus craps and roulette.

In exchange for the expanded gaming, the tribe guaranteed the state a minimum of $2.5 billion over the first five years of the deal. The state’s tax benefit from the new compact was more than $6 billion by 20230.

But the compact was soon put on hold after a lawsuit was filed by an entity called West Flagler Associates. Founded in Miami in the early 1950s as a partnership controlled by the Havenick family, West Flagler owns the Bonita Springs Poker Room and previously owned the Magic City Casino in Miami. West Flagler sold Magic City, which offers slots and poker, to Alabama’s Poarch Band of Creek Indians for $600 million earlier this year.

West Flagler argued that the U.S. Department of the Interior and its Bureau of Indian Affairs erred in approving the Seminole-DeSantis compact. The plaintiffs claimed by allowing people to place remote sports bets over the internet from nonsovereign lands, the compact violated the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA).

DC District Court Judge Dabney Friedrich agreed in a November 2021 ruling. The decision invalidated the Seminole compact and took offline the Hard Rock Sportsbook app, which had launched only weeks earlier.

Appeals Court Overturns Dabney

The Seminoles appealed Friedrich’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. In June, a three-judge panel in the federal appeals court unanimously overturned Friedrich.  It was done on its belief that IGRA only regulates tribal gaming and does not prohibit a tribe and state “from discussing other topics, including those governing activities ‘outside Indian lands.'”

The Seminoles say since their online sportsbook computer servers will remain on sovereign land, the gaming remains tribal. West Flagler attorneys, however, contend Florida authorized commercial gaming unlawfully. In 2018, Florida voters approved Amendment 3, giving voters the exclusive right to decide whether to authorize commercial casino gambling in Florida.

The three judges countered by writing that it’s not the federal government’s decision to decide whether tribal gaming can be facilitated from nontribal land.

“Whether it is otherwise lawful for a patron to place bets from non-tribal land within Florida may be a question for that State’s courts, but it is not the subject of this litigation and not for us to decide,” the judges reasoned.

Case Continues

West Flagler isn’t folding on its fight and has requested an “en banc” hearing from the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. For a full bench hearing, at least six of the 11 judges must sign off on reviewing the case. The odds of that happening are long, as the D.C. appeals court hasn’t accepted an “en banc” hearing in two years.

Commenting on the en banc request, Seminole attorneys this week filed a response claiming the West Flagler arguments are “strawmen” and “erroneous.” The attorneys say IGRA “places no conditions or restrictions on gaming on non-Indian lands” and the federal law “leaves undisturbed a state’s … authority to determine whether and under what conditions to permit gaming on lands within its jurisdiction.”

The tribal attorneys say the 2018 referendum is also not relevant, as the referendum did not apply to “casino gambling on tribal lands.”

It will likely be several weeks, if not months, before the DC appeals court decides on the en banc request. That will keep legal sports betting on hold for Floridians.