Another barrier to online sports betting falls, but other impediments yet remain in FL

U.S. Supreme Court lifts stay, but FL Supreme Court may have the last word

By: - October 26, 2023 1:33 pm

Sportsbook in Las Vegas. Credit: Simon Ladesma, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0

The U.S. Supreme Court has removed an impediment to online sports betting in Florida, but don’t go trying to wager on the World Series from your couch just yet. Plenty of legal barriers remain in place, and the Seminole Tribe of Florida is keeping its plans under wrap for now.

U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts had put a temporary hold on a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit allowing online sports betting via computers and cellphones far distant from the Seminoles’ tribal lands, as long as the bets go through servers on tribal land.

Roberts released that hold on Wednesday. But the issue remains tied up in state court, where the Florida Supreme Court will have to weigh in on whether the “hub-and-spoke” betting system — remote bets made through central servers at the tribe’s casinos — is legal under state law.

The parties are still filing written briefs in the state Supreme Court case and the justices haven’t yet scheduled oral arguments.

Gary Bitner, spokesman for the Seminole Tribe of Florida, welcomed the development but didn’t say much else.

“The denial of the stay by the U.S. Supreme Court is very good news. The Seminole Tribe of Florida is heartened by this decision,” Bitner said in a written statement.

None of the justices filed any opposition to lifting the stay, but Justice Brett Kavanagh recorded some qualms.

Then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifying at a Senate hearing in fall 2018. Wikimedia Commons

“I agree that the stay application should be denied in light of the D. C. Circuit’s pronouncement that the compact between Florida and the Seminole Tribe authorizes the tribe to conduct only on-reservation gaming operations, and not off-reservation gaming operations,” Kavanaugh wrote.

However: “If the compact authorized the tribe to conduct off-reservation gaming operations, either directly or by deeming off-reservation gaming operations to somehow be on-reservation, then the compact would likely violate the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act,” he continued.

“To the extent that a separate Florida statute (as distinct from the compact) authorizes the Seminole Tribe — and only the Seminole Tribe — to conduct certain off-reservation gaming operations in Florida, the state law raises serious equal protection issues,” he concluded, noting that the matter is before the Florida Supreme Court.

Seminole Compact

A deal, the so-called Seminole Gaming Compact, reached in 2021 between Gov. Ron DeSantis and the tribe, allows the “hub-and-spoke” arrangement, exclusive to the tribe. The deal resolved years of conflict over the terms of an earlier gambling compact and induced the Seminoles to resume paying the state a cut of its gambling profits. The state projected its takings at $2.5 billion through the first five years and $6 billion by 2030.

Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, when still under construction, in Hollywood. Credit: Dmoore5556 via Wikimedia Commons

The Florida Legislature did enact a statute ratifying the compact and the Seminoles briefly offered online betting but had to stop after West Flagler Associates Ltd. and Bonita-Fort Myers Corp., respectively a casino and a poker room, filed lawsuits in both state and federal court.  You can still place bets in person at Seminole casinos in Broward County and the Tampa area.

The federal action complained the deal violated the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, or IGRA, which regulates Indian gambling but restricts it to tribal land. The state action invoked language in the Florida Constitution requiring a referendum to approve most new casino gambling in the state outside of tribal areas.

A federal trial judge in Washington, D.C., ruled to block hub-and-spoke, but the D.C. Circuit overruled her.

“[T]he compact itself authorizes only the betting that occurs on the tribe’s lands; in this respect it satisfied IGRA. 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,” the appeals court said.

No Casinos, a Florida organization that opposes casino gambling, has filed friend-of-the-court briefs in both the state and federal cases to oppose the deal. A spokesman offered no reply to a request for comment. Neither did the governor’s office.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.