Court sides with government, but Florida sports betting question not settled

Judge said case is a matter for Florida courts

Gov. DeSantis signs the gambling compact with a Seminole Tribe leader in 2021.

WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court says the law does not prohibit Florida’s compact with the Seminole Tribe to allow online sports betting. However, the ruling may not be the final decision on the future of online sports betting in the state.

On Friday, Judge Robert Wilkins of the U.S. Appeals Court in Washington, D.C. overturned a lower court ruling that threw out the gaming compact on grounds that it violated the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA).

In April 2021, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Seminole Tribe agreed to a 30-year deal called a compact. The tribe would be allowed to operate sports betting, as well as offer craps and roulette at its casinos.

To get around a 2018 voter-approved amendment that only authorized gambling in the state if it was approved by voters, the servers for the sports betting were supposed to be located on tribal land.

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In return for agreeing to the compact, the state would get at least $2.5 billion over the first five years, and an estimated $20 billion over the 30 years of the deal.

The U.S. Department of the Interior, overseer of American Indian Affairs, allowed the contract to go through under the IGRA.

Nontribal gambling facilities led by West Flagler Associates, which owns Magic City Casino in Miami, sued in federal court, saying Interior Secretary Debra Haaland should have stopped the gambling compact as a violation of the IGRA.

Wilkins in his appellate ruling agreed with Haaland that the compact did not violate the IGRA because it only handled gambling on tribal lands.

However, Wilkins also said that whether the compact violated state law was a matter for the Florida courts to decide.

“We hold only that the Secretary’s decision not to act on the Compact was consistent with IGRA. In reaching this narrow conclusion, we do not give our imprimatur to all of the activity discussed in the Compact. And particularly, for avoidance of doubt, we express no opinion as to whether the Florida statute ratifying the Compact is constitutional under Fla. Const. art. X, § 30. That question and any other related questions of state law are outside the scope of the Secretary’s review of the Compact, are outside the scope of our judicial review, and as a prudential matter are best left for Florida’s courts to decide,” Wilkins wrote.

The D.C. court must now issue a final mandate of the case to make the decision final.

But West Flagler Associates may ask for an en banc decision, which would require the entire appeals court panel. They may also appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court or take the case through the Florida courts.

Daniel Wallach, an attorney specializing in gaming law, thinks West Flagler Associates will try to take the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and also thinks the high court will take the case if that happens.

“When you have court rulings from different federal circuit courts that are in disagreement with one another, that’s one of the primary examples of when the United States Supreme Court will grant certiorari review, they’re looking for circuit splits,” Wallach said. “Now we have one and we have an issue that is of great importance to the gambling industry, not only in Florida, but this is a decision that can alter the balance of power and impact tribes and non-tribal gaming operators in virtually every state, so it has the hallmarks of the type of case the United States Supreme Court would consider reviewing.”

Wallach said the Seminole Tribe could take an “aggressive stance” and move forward with sports betting, but it would be unwise to do so if West Flagler seeks an en banc decision.

“At a bare minimum, it will be a few months before they’re allowed to relaunch sports betting,” Wallach said, adding that if West Flagler does pursue all federal avenues, it could be a year or more before sports betting happens in Florida.

The Seminole Tribe issued the following statement to News 6:

The Seminole Tribe of Florida is pleased with today’s unanimous decision. It is a positive outcome for the Seminole Tribe and the people of Florida, and for all of Indian Country. The Tribe is fully reviewing the decision to determine its next steps.

Seminole Tribe

News 6 is working to get a statement from the governor’s office to find out what the next steps are.

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About the Author:

Christie joined the ClickOrlando team in November 2021.