Seminole Sports-Betting Dispute In D.C. Spreads To Florida Supreme Court

September 27, 2023
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Still struggling with its case in a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., a Miami-based pari-mutuel business is turning to the Florida Supreme Court to derail a tribal gaming compact that would re-launch sports betting in the Sunshine State.
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Still struggling with its case in a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., a Miami-based pari-mutuel business is turning to the Florida Supreme Court to derail a tribal gaming compact that would re-launch sports betting in the Sunshine State.

West Flagler Associates, in a lawsuit submitted on Monday (September 25) in the Florida Supreme Court, claimed a gambling compact negotiated in 2021 between Republican Governor Ron DeSantis and the Seminole Tribe violates the state’s Constitution.

“The governor exceeded his authority by entering into a compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida … granting the Tribe the exclusive right to offer off-reservation online and in-person sports betting throughout the entire state and by signing legislation ratifying the 2021 Compact and making such wagers legal statewide,” Raquel Rodriguez, an attorney representing West Flagler Associates, wrote in the lawsuit.

Rodriguez claimed the 30-year compact, estimated to be worth $2.5bn, violates Amendment 3 of the Florida Constitution which requires voters to approve any expansion of gambling.

However, tribal gaming advocates insist Amendment 3 – which voters approved in a 2018 referendum – includes a provision exempting expansion via a tribal gaming compact negotiated by the governor.

Gary Bitner, a spokesman for the Seminole Tribe, declined on Tuesday to comment on the Florida lawsuit.

Of the Florida court’s seven justices, five were appointed by DeSantis.

West Flagler Associates filed the lawsuit in the state as it continues its appeal against the compact in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington.

The D.C. appeals court is considering a request by West Flagler Associates to stay, or delay, the resumption of sports betting in Florida, which occurred under the compact for a brief period between November 1 and December 4, 2021.

West Flagler Associates asked for the stay after the D.C. appeals court on September 11 rejected the company’s request for an "en banc" hearing including all 11 of the court’s active judges.

The en banc hearing would have focused on a unanimous opinion from June 30 by a three-member panel of the D.C. appeals court, which upheld the decision of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to allow the compact to advance without expressly approving it.

But in his June 30 opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge Robert Wilkins included a caveat that may have led to Monday’s lawsuit 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.

Attorneys for the U.S. Department of the Interior opposed West Flagler’s request for a stay on Monday with a motion saying the June 30 decision was a narrow ruling focusing on Haaland’s authority to deem the compact approved.

If the D.C. appeals court denies its request for a stay, West Flagler Associates has said it plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Robert Jarvis, who teaches gaming law at Shepard Broad College of Law in Davie, Florida, said he is not convinced the Florida Supreme Court will even schedule a hearing on West Flagler Associates’ lawsuit against the compact.

“This lawsuit will be no more successful than West Flagler Associates’ federal lawsuit and actually has less merit,” Jarvis told Vixio GamblingCompliance in an email.

“But it will continue to keep the Seminoles on the [sports betting] sidelines for at least awhile.”

John Holden, an associate professor in the department of management at Oklahoma State University who previously taught at Florida State University, said West Flagler’s lawsuit in Florida was almost inevitable.

“I am not sure if West Flagler has more of a chance in state court, but they get to push a different theory, which likely resets the scales,” Holden said.

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