Historic Ruling For Florida Seminoles Could Revolutionize All Tribal Gaming

July 3, 2023
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In what could be the most significant court decision on Indian gaming in more than 36 years, a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. on Friday upheld a landmark compact negotiated in 2021 between the Seminole Tribe and the state of Florida.

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In what could be the most significant court decision on Indian gaming in more than 36 years, a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. on Friday (June 30) upheld a landmark compact negotiated in 2021 between the Seminole Tribe and the state of Florida.

The unanimous 3-0 decision should allow the Seminoles to resume accepting online sports bets on computer servers located on their reservation even if the wagers are submitted by Floridians outside tribal land.

The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit reverses a November 22, 2021 decision by U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich who decided the compact between the Seminoles and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis violated the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 due to the language related to state-wide mobile sports wagering.

Friedrich’s decision halted the Seminole Tribe's Hard Rock-branded online sports-betting operation in Florida, which lasted for barely more than a month from November 1, 2021, to December 4, 2021.

By unanimously overturning Friedrich’s ruling, U.S. Circuit Judges Robert Wilkins, Karen Henderson, and J. Michelle Childs may have made the most consequential court decision regarding tribal gaming since the historic Cabazon case in 1987 when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected state laws restricting gaming on Indian reservations.

In response to the Cabazon decision, Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) of 1988, which spawned the $39bn tribal gaming industry.

In addition to granting the tribe exclusivity over sports betting in Florida, the 2021 compact inked by the Seminole Tribe and Republican Governor DeSantis also authorizes craps and roulette games at tribal casinos, permits the tribe to develop up to three additional casino-resorts in Hollywood, near Fort Lauderdale, and sets the terms by which other forms of gaming may be expanded by state lawmakers in the future.

At the very least, last week’s decision by the D.C. federal appeals court means mobile sports betting should be back up and running in Florida within weeks and certainly before the beginning of the National Football League season in September, according to Bob Jarvis, a gambling law expert at Shepard Broad College of Law in Davie, Florida.

But the impact of the decision almost certainly will spread beyond Florida.

“Every tribe now will run to its state to discuss authorizing mobile sports betting. Thus, sports betting is going to explode. As the old line goes, ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet,’” Jarvis told VIXIO GamblingCompliance in an email.

The Seminole decision is “a logical outcome” of the Supreme Court decision on May 14, 2018, which allowed states to legalize and regulate sports betting, Jarvis said.

Instead of championing the verdict, the Seminoles issued a surprisingly restrained comment on the appeals court’s ruling.

“The Seminole Tribe of Florida is pleased with the unanimous decision. It is a positive outcome for the Seminole Tribe and the people of Florida, and for all of Indian Country,” said Seminole spokesman Gary Bitner.

“The Tribe is fully reviewing the decision to determine its next steps,” Bitner said.

Eugene Stearns, the Miami, Florida, attorney representing West Flagler Associates, a pari-mutuel and casino operator which filed the lawsuit opposing the Seminole gambling compact, said a decision on whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court has not been made yet.

“The [appeals] court punted on the issues we were concerned about,” Stearns told VIXIO in a phone interview after the ruling.

“This was about expanding gambling outside tribal lands in Florida, and to do that, you must pass a referendum. That would be difficult. A vote by the people has not occurred.”

As for sports betting, Stearns said, “that ship has sailed. Now that the leagues are in the business, sports betting is everywhere. We’re more concerned about somebody like Donald Trump building a casino at Doral (a country club in Miami which the former president owns).”

In writing the appeals court’s decision, U.S. Circuit Judge Robert Wilkins seemed to leave the door open for a future legal challenge in Florida.

“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,” Wilkins wrote in the court’s 24-page opinion.

“Today, we hold only that the [U.S. Department of the Interior] Secretary [Deb Haaland] did not violate the Administrative Procedure Act in choosing not to act and thereby allowing the Compact to go into effect by operation of law.”

Instead of expressly endorsing the Seminole compact, Haaland allowed the agreement to take effect on August 6, 2021 by declaring it was “deemed approved” by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Jarvis, the Florida law professor, said Wilkins' statement does not dilute the appeals court’s decision.

“Obviously, the secretary — by her inaction — decided that the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act does not prohibit Indian tribes from accepting off-reservations bets so long as they are able to obtain their state’s consent,” Jarvis said.

“The [appeals] court, by upholding the Secretary’s decision — and reversing Friedrich’s contrary opinion — agrees. There simply is no other way to read Judge Wilkins’ opinion.”

Barry Richard, the prominent Tallahassee-based attorney who represented the Seminole Tribe in oral arguments before the appeals court on December 14, 2022, took a more circumspect view of the potential expansion of state-wide mobile sports betting and internet gambling by tribes in other states.

“This decision did not say anybody, based upon federal law, could do it,” Richard told VIXIO in a phone interview.

“It says, in the particular circumstances of this case, there was no violation of federal law — of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act — but it didn’t go beyond that,” Richard said.

“So, I mean, basically what this opinion said was that as long as it is otherwise consistent with state law and other federal laws that nothing in IGRA prohibit this. That’s all they said.”

Richard said he would be surprised if West Flagler Associates appeals the decision to the Supreme Court because the ruling is a victory not only for the Seminoles but Florida’s pari-mutuel industry.

“It wasn’t clear why [West Flagler Associates] filed this [lawsuit against the compact],” Richard said, citing language in the compact that permits other entities in Florida to operate sports betting via the Seminole Tribe's platform.

“The other [pari-mutuels] all entered into contractual agreements with the tribe. The new compact was designed to resolve the continuing friction with the pari-mutuels, which I think it will,” Richard said.

The U.S. Department of the Interior did not respond to a request for comment after the decision on Friday.

Hamish Hume, the Washington, D.C. attorney who represented West Flagler Associates in oral arguments during the appeals court hearing in December, also did not respond to a request for comment.

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