As Seminole Tribe tries to rebound from defeat of gambling compact, feds offer little help

Victorious FL pari-mutuels seek to shut down tribe’s ongoing sports betting

By: - November 30, 2021 5:54 pm

Parx SportsBook, Bensalem, PA. Credit: CreativeCommons

New court filings Tuesday from Florida pari-mutuel facilities and federal Indian gaming regulators suggest the Seminole Tribe of Florida may face an uphill battle to resurrect its gambling compact with the State of Florida.

A U.S. district judge struck down the compact in a ruling last week. The tribe, which launched Florida’s first statewide sports betting statewide on Nov. 1 under the auspices of the compact, is appealing and continues taking bets.

The tribe’s alliance with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a federal bureau that allowed the gambling compact to take effect by default in August, may be unraveling, judging from the brief filed Tuesday in appellate court by U.S. Interior Department Secretary Deb Haaland. The Interior Department oversees the BIA, which regulates Indian gaming.

Haaland’s brief loosely agrees with one filed Tuesday by the two Florida pari-mutuel companies that sued her to bring down the gambling compact.

Both filings contend the Seminole Tribe is not likely to win its appeal of the Nov. 22 ruling by Judge Dabney Friedrich that vacated the lucrative gambling compact as a violation of federal Indian gaming laws.

For that reason, the pari-mutuels argue the appellate court should deny the tribe’s request for a stay and its appeal. Haaland’s brief doesn’t go that far but offers little support, much like it did when it allowed the compact to take effect by default at the end of a 45-day review period but did not endorse it with an official approval.

“The federal government advises that, while it does not join in the Tribe’s motion for stay pending appeal and does not agree with all analysis presented in that motion, it also does not oppose the motion,” wrote lawyers for Secretary Haaland.

“The Tribe has no likelihood of success on appeal,” wrote lawyers for Magic City Casino and Bonita Springs Poker Room, the pari-mutuel facilities who sued the Interior Department to permanently dismantle the gambling compact and its sports-betting provisions.

The pari-mutuel facilities do not oppose sports betting and in fact want to be allowed to take part in it without having to get the permission of the Seminole Tribe, to whom the compact grants 30 years of exclusive control.

Haaland’s lawyers conceded in Tuesday’s filing that the tribe has a thin case on appeal, more about a procedural dispute involving the tribe’s sovereign immunity than an argument about sports betting, Indian gaming laws and the compact. The tribe’s motion to intervene was based on a complex claim of sovereign immunity that the tribe hoped would cause the pari-mutuels’ case to fall apart.

In Judge Friedrich’s view, it did not. Which left at the heart of the dispute the court’s interpretation of federal Indian gaming law that has for decades authorized Indian gambling on Indian lands but not beyond. The arrangement proposed in the gambling compact between the Seminole Tribe and the State of Florida is an innovative one that contends bets placed anywhere in Florida on mobile devices are deemed to have been made on Indian land so long as the bets are processed on servers on tribal property.

Proponents dubbed it a “hub and spoke” model. Opponents called it a “fiction” that violates federal law.

The pari-mutuel facilities argued in their filings Tuesday that sports betting should be shut down rather than continue a “gambling scheme that violates state and federal laws and makes unwitting bettors into accomplices in the violations of those laws.”

John Sowinski, president of No Casinos, which was a party to a related lawsuit against Haaland, called the tribe’s ongoing sports betting in light of Judge Friedrich’s ruling “illegal gambling.”

“The tribe should immediately halt its illegal gambling. The federal court invalidated the 2021 compact, ruling that its expansion of gambling violated the law, and instructed that the previous 2010 compact [which does not permit sports betting] is now in effect,” Sowinski said in a statement provided to the Phoenix. “Judge Friedrich quickly and correctly denied the tribe’s first motion for a stay. By moving for stay a second time [in the appellate court], the tribe has repeatedly acknowledged that continuing its expanded gambling operations is inconsistent with the court’s order.”

The tribe has until midday Wednesday to file additional briefs. A ruling from a three-person appellate panel on upholding or overturning Judge Friedrich’s ruling is expected to come quickly.

The gambling compact was negotiated between Gov. Ron DeSantis and Seminole Tribal Chairman Marcellus W. Osceola Jr. They signed it in April, the Legislature ratified it in special session in May. It grants the tribe a 30-year contract that includes exclusive control of sports betting, permission to build new casinos on its property, and permission to play formerly illegal games at its casinos such as craps and roulette.

The state would reap an average of $500 million a year in Seminole gambling revenue — a minimum of $2.5 billion over five years — and more billions to come over the course of the compact.

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.