Seminoles legal dispute

US federals back Florida sports betting deal, claim "hybrid" model complies with tribal laws

Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Seminole tribe signed the compact earlier this year, now being challenged.
Reading time 4:09 min
Attorneys for the U.S. Department of the Interior defended the deal giving the Seminole Tribe control of sports betting in the state in a 33-page court document. Feds acknowledge wagers would be made off tribal property, but claim the state authorizes it and is consistent with IGRA. The additional arguments were presented after a judge in a lawsuit filed by two state pari-mutuels criticized the federal Govt. lawyers' strategy. The judge is likely to make her summary judgment by Monday.

In a new episode of the ongoing dispute over sports betting in Florida, the U.S. Department of the Interior has now fired back against allegations that the deal giving the Seminole Tribe control of sports betting in the state violates federal law in a 33-page court document filed by attorneys late Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

Feds defended the Seminole Tribe's control of sports wagering, pointing to the decision taken by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature to allow the tribe to accept bets. They disputed that the permits violate the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act during a hearing held last week by U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich. She said she will likely make her summary judgment by or around Monday, Nov. 15. Until a decision is made, Florida online sports betting will be allowed to continue in the state.

The hearing was held as part of a lawsuit filed by two Florida pari-mutuels which challenged the sports betting agreement, alleging the compact signed by the state violates the IGRA by allowing the Seminoles to accept bets that are placed off tribal property.

The controversial deal allows Florida bettors to place sports wagers through the use of mobile devices. The bets are processed through computer servers on tribal property: the question at the heart of the issue is if bets being run through computers on tribal land equals betting on said tribal land. 

In additional arguments now submitted by department attorneys, they acknowledged the wagers would be made by people off tribal property, but said the state authorizes them.

“Federal defendants contend that for federal law purposes, and consistent with federal law, the online sports betting provisions in the compact reflect a permissible hybrid approach wherein gaming activity that occurs off of the tribe’s Indian lands is authorized under state law, and gaming activity that occurs on Indian lands is authorized by IGRA pursuant to the compact,” the document presented said, according to CBS Miami.

Furthermore, the attorneys wrote that the compact “permissibly only authorizes gaming that occurs on the tribe’s Indian lands,” which is consistent with IGRA, and “does not and could not authorize activity occurring off of the tribe’s Indian lands.”

“When the compact was presented to the secretary, she was not presented with a decision whether to ‘authorize’ persons in Florida to place an online sports wager with the tribe when they are physically located off of the tribe’s Indian lands,” the document reads. “The state law ratifying the compact had already done that.”

According to the owners of pari-mutuels Magic City Casino in Miami-Dade County and Bonita Springs Poker Room in Southwest Florida, the sports betting plan is a “legal fiction” that violates federal law. Hamish Hume, attorney for the plaintiffs, argued last week that IGRA was being used to create a form of “loophole” to offer off-tribal lands gaming. 

Moreover, the pari-mutuels also claim the arrangement discriminates in favor of the Seminole tribe, and that by giving them sole control over sports wagering there could be a “significant and potentially devastating impact” on their businesses.

Another argument that has been raised against the compact involves a 2018 state constitutional amendment that requires voter approval of gambling expansions. Critics of the sports betting launch contend it violates this amendment, as it was not approved by Florida voters.

Contrastingly, supporters of the deal have argued the plan did not have to go before voters, as sports wagering is being run by the tribe. Federal attorneys have also urged judge Friedrich to not decide the state constitutional issue, as they should be resolved “in an appropriate state court forum.”

“Indeed, since many of the claims and relief sought in these cases involve the state and state law, a state forum would be the more appropriate for any such challenge,” reads the document presented by the attorneys, as reported by CBS.

“But here, the state has represented to the secretary and this court that it entered into and ratified the compact consistent with state law, including the Florida Constitution,” the document further states. “The court should rely on those contentions and reject plaintiffs’ unsubstantiated arguments to the contrary.”

The additional arguments were presented after Friedrich urged federal attorneys to do so, after expressing frustration that the government was not taking a clear position on the issue of whether gambling was occurring off tribal land.

The lawsuit filed by the pari-mutuels is not the only one challenging the lucrative agreement between Seminoles and the state. Two prominent South Florida businessmen, along with the group No Casino, are also presenting a lawsuit in federal court in Washington. They allege the compact would adversely impact their properties and neighborhoods by increasing traffic, congestion, criminal activity, among other arguments.

In the meantime, and despite the ongoing legal disputes, sports betting has already gone live in the state. Bettors in Florida can wager through the Hard Rock Sportsbook app. The tribe launched it on November 1.

Under the 30-year compact, the Seminoles agreed to pay the state at least $2.5 billion over the first five years in exchange for having sole control over sports betting throughout Florida. They are also allowed to add craps and roulette to their casino operations.

The compact is also facing competition from major operators, including DraftKings and FanDuel, which are pushing to get sports betting on the ballot in 2022. The initiative proposes legislation that would open up online sports betting statewide to any legal sports betting platforms, thus challenging Seminoles’ exclusive rights.

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