Florida Compact, Sports Betting In Jeopardy After Disastrous Court Hearing

November 8, 2021
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The smooth ride of the Seminole compact for the last six months ended abruptly on Friday when a federal judge in Washington, D.C. became increasingly frustrated and even annoyed with responses from a government attorney defending the tribe’s historic gambling agreement with the state of Florida.

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The smooth ride of the Seminole compact for the last six months ended abruptly on Friday when a federal judge in Washington, D.C. became increasingly frustrated and even annoyed with responses from a government attorney defending the tribe’s historic gambling agreement with the state of Florida.

“It’s hard not to sit here and think that the government’s sole litigation strategy here is simply to delay this court’s ruling,” U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich said near the end of Friday’s teleconference, which lasted one hour and 46 minutes.

Friedrich set a deadline of Tuesday for Rebecca Ross, the Justice Department trial attorney representing the U.S. Department of the Interior, to submit additional legal briefs defending the decision of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in August to deem the compact approved.

“I’m giving you a chance for additional briefing here. I don’t think I have to,” Friedrich told Ross.

The judge also said she hoped to release a decision on two lawsuits challenging the compact by November 15 but emphasized the date could change.

November 15 is the day the Seminoles were expected to launch sports-betting operations in Florida until the tribe began accepting online bets on November 1.

Ross got off to a rocky start when she told Friedrich the two lawsuits — one by the pari-mutuel company West Flagler Associates and the other by an anti-gambling coalition in Florida — should be dismissed right away without arguments.

Neither plaintiff has the legal authority nor standing to sue the Interior Department, Ross said.

Although Ross did not mention it, a federal judge in Florida already had cited lack of standing for dismissing almost the same lawsuit by West Flagler Associates on October 18 in Tallahassee.

Friedrich made it clear she wanted to hear arguments, citing her order last month requiring the government to reply to both lawsuits with legal briefs by October 12.

“Ms. Ross, I am confounded by the government’s position,” Friedrich said.

“I don’t understand how the government can come into this hearing expecting that this is a just a hearing on the government’s motion to dismiss. It makes no sense to me.”

When the judge asked the government’s attorney if she was prepared to argue the merits of the case against both lawsuits, Ross replied: “I’ll do my best.”

Perhaps the most salient exchange between Friedrich and Ross occurred when the judge asked if the federal government considers all online bets under the Seminole compact to be wagers on Indian land, on the basis that servers are located on the tribe's reservation.

When Ross did not answer directly, the clearly irritated judge raised her voice.

“This decision (deeming the compact approved) was made in August — in August — and litigation has been going since then. I find it extremely hard to believe that the government doesn’t even know what its position is,” Friedrich told Ross.

The judge pressed Ross again for an answer on whether the government considers online wagering to be “solely on Indian land.”

“Just yes or no — just yes or no — you can’t answer that?” Friedrich said to Ross.

“No, I cannot answer that,” Ross said.

Friday’s teleconference also underscored how one of the lawsuits seeks only to prohibit online sports betting in the Seminole compact, while the other intends to abolish the agreement completely.

Hamish P.M. Hume, the Washington, D.C. attorney representing West Flagler Associates, told Friedrich the compact would be acceptable if online sports betting provisions are deleted.

“I think it’s the approval as to those provisions allowing online sports betting only that our clients are objecting to, and the only thing we think is unlawful,” Hume said.

But Eugene Stearns, the Miami attorney representing the Florida coalition of No Casinos and anti-gambling businessmen, urged Friedrich to reject the compact and send it back to Secretary Haaland.

The compact turns the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act on its head, Stearns said, by giving the Seminoles exclusive rights to offer not only sports betting, but craps and roulette — games which are illegal outside tribal land in Florida.

“What you can’t do is use a back-door effort to violate Florida law and introduce pervasive gambling from one end of this state to the other. The people have the right to do that; the [Interior] Secretary doesn’t,” Stearns said.

Barry Richard, an attorney representing the Seminole Tribe, asked if the tribe’s motions to dismiss the two lawsuits and intervene in the case could be heard.

Friedrich said she did not have time to hear the Seminole Tribe’s motions during Friday’s teleconference.

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