DOI, Seminole Tribe Reinforce Justice Dept. In Florida Sports Betting Appeal

Written By Derek Helling on October 4, 2022
Seminole Tribe DOJ Florida sports betting lawsuit appeal

The defendants in a Florida sports betting lawsuit are presenting a united front, meaning a federal court will either side with their collective arguments or dismiss the lot of them together.

A new brief from the Seminole Tribe and the US Dept. of the Interior contains some familiar language.

While contriving similar arguments stresses the importance of the points central to those arguments, a potential downside is that if they prove ineffective it could weaken the defendants’ case for a further appeal.

This further demonstrates why the defendants’ best hope might be action from the United States Congress.

Florida sports betting lawsuit proceeds with another opening brief

This is an appeal of the lawsuit that shut down legal Florida sports betting in November of 2021. The Interior and the Seminole Tribe are among the defendants in the lawsuit. The Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland is the lead defendant.

West Flagler Associates, which operates multiple off-track betting sites in Florida, is the plaintiff. Their argument centered around the Indian Gaming Rights Act (IGRA).

In November 2021, a federal district court ruled the Seminoles violated the IGRA. They were offering their Hard Rock Sportsbook to bettors online in Florida. However, the IGRA bans tribal gaming on lands not controlled by a federally recognized tribe.

In that first trial, the defendants argued that the online bets were permissible under the IGRA because the servers that all the activity took place on were located on Seminole lands. The court did not agree, however, and the defendants appealed.

In its August opening brief, the US Justice Dept. altered its stance representing Haaland. The main argument was that Haaland merely acted to approve the updated compact between Florida and the Seminole Tribe.

The brief continued to contend that her position as Secretary of the Interior gives her no authority over Florida law. Monday’s brief from the Interior as an agency and the Seminole Tribe largely echoes that statement.

DOI, Seminole Tribe doubles down on arguments

The DOI and Seminole Tribe filed their opening brief in the appeal on Monday. The main thrust of their argument is that the DOI acted properly by simply approving the renegotiated gaming compact between Florida and the Seminole Tribe, which the IGRA charges the department with.

Furthermore, the brief argues that the compact only covers physical gambling on tribal lands, again, in compliance with the tenets of the IGRA. The online gambling component of this Florida sports betting framework, the brief contends, is the result of a separate commercial agreement between Florida and the Seminole Tribe.

That puts the operation of the online Hard Rock Sportsbook across the state out of the jurisdiction of the IGRA. The IGRA only governs gambling that takes place as part of formal gambling compacts.

There’s no federal law that says tribal gaming authorities can’t form separate agreements with state governments or offer online gambling approved by state governments.

Essentially, the appellant brief states, if Florida wants to make Hard Rock Sportsbook available online within its borders, that isn’t for the DOI to weigh in on. The plaintiffs have yet to file their response and to date, there is no schedule for oral arguments in the case.

The defendants’ hopes for success in this appeal now greatly depend on convincing the court that the online gambling the Seminole Tribe wants to offer in Florida is not part of their gaming compact with the state.

If that proves unsuccessful, it could leave the defendants with few other options for judicial relief.

Could the defendants’ argument prove a winning strategy?

This argument might be the best leg the defendants have to stand on at this point. If the court rejects it, that might leave them crippled for pressing the litigation further. Should the appeals court find it wanting, an appeal to the US Supreme Court might prove challenging.

The Supreme Court traditionally prefers to take up a case when appeals courts from separate districts issue differing opinions on the same subject. Another common factor is if there is otherwise a serious need for a national standard on the interpretation of federal law.

Given that the defendants have essentially abandoned any argument that the district court erred in its interpretation of the IGRA, that eliminates one of those two motivations.

Additionally, this case has only been tried in the District of Columbia federal court system so far. There have been no major court cases challenging the limitations of the IGRA in this way in other districts.

In the end, the best hope for Florida and the Seminole Tribe might be a legislative fix.

Congress has already seen bills that would alter the IGRA to allow compact holders to offer online gambling beyond their lands. If this appeal fails, the Seminole Tribe may redirect its resources to lobbying for such legislation instead of pressing for SCOTUS review.

There’s no reason they couldn’t do both, just on the off-chance SCOTUS does grant cert. At the same time, the Seminole Tribe might want to get its lobbyists ready in the Capitol building.

Photo by Wilfredo Lee / AP
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Derek Helling

Derek Helling is a lead writer for PlayUSA. Helling focuses on breaking news, including legislation and litigation in the gaming industry. He enjoys reading hundreds of pages of a gambling bill or lawsuit for his audience. Helling completed his journalism degree at the University of Iowa.

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