In civil litigation, how one party makes its argument can be just as important as the merits of that argument. The ongoing lawsuit holding up legal Florida sports betting has a new twist courtesy of the United States Justice Department.
Justice is involved in the case because the US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland is among the defendants. Last week, the Justice Department argued to an appeals court that Haaland acted within the scope of her office when she approved a gambling compact between Florida and the Seminole Tribe in 2021. How the department presented that argument was a novel approach in the case, too.
Justice Dept. defends Haaland to court handling Florida sports betting
On Aug. 17, the Justice Dept. filed its expected brief in West Flagler Associates, et al v. Debra Haaland, et al. While oral arguments in the case – currently in the appeals court for Washington, DC – are not yet on the schedule, the brief lays out Justice’s position in Haaland’s defense.
In November 2021, the district court found Haaland erred in her approval of the compact between Florida and the Seminole Tribe that for a short time allowed legal online sports betting to happen in the Sunshine State. The lower court ruled the compact violated the federal Indian Gaming Rights Act (IGRA) because it enabled tribal casinos to offer gambling under the terms of a gaming compact on lands they did not control, which IGRA forbids.
The Dept. of Justice is no longer arguing that the gambling actually happens on Seminole lands because the servers that accept the online wagers are located on those lands. Instead, Justice is simply stating that whether people gamble online in Florida is no business of Haaland’s.
Justice: Haaland has no jurisdiction over Florida law
Justice’s new argument is that Haaland’s only role in this situation is deciding whether the gambling agreement between the state and the Seminole Tribe is good for the tribe and meets applicable legal standards. If the state of Florida decides it wants to allow its residents and visitors to participate in gambling the Seminoles are offering on a wider basis, then Haaland has no say in that matter.
Around the same time as Florida executed its new compact with the Seminole Tribe late in 2021, the state also enacted a new law legalizing online sports betting statewide but only under the Seminole Tribe’s auspices. During the short period when it was available, that all happened online via the Hard Rock Sportsbook app.
The law also allows the Seminole Tribe to form partnerships with off-track betting sites in the state to offer in-person wagering on sports. However, it largely left the terms of such partnerships to the Seminole Tribe to decide for itself.
Because of the effective monopoly that Florida gave the Seminole Tribe over legal sports betting in Florida, West Flagler Associates filed its lawsuit. West Flagler owns the Magic City Casino in the greater Miami area.
Basically, the Dept. of Justice is saying that there’s nothing about the Seminole Tribe’s hosting online gambling servers and offering online sports betting that violates the IGRA, and the compact is in all other ways valid, so Haaland was not only within her rights but made the appropriate decision when she approved the compact. It was the state, not Haaland, that decided to expand access to that gambling to everywhere within Florida’s borders.
Even if Haaland found fault with that expansion, her position as Secretary of the Interior gives her no power to do anything about that, Justice’s argument states. Additionally, the validity of Florida’s gambling expansion law was not before the district court.
Thus, the appellate court should vacate the lower court’s ruling, Justice contests. It’s uncertain whether that argument will prove more effective as of yet.
What could happen now?
There are several different ways this case could go still. Oral arguments, whenever those occur, could lend some insight as to which way the court is leaning. If the court buys what Justice is selling and rules in Haaland’s favor, it could put the Seminole Tribe in an interesting situation.
Technically, that would reinstate the compact that the Seminole Tribe and Florida agreed to. In theory, the Seminole Tribe could opt to start taking bets on sports again. Additionally, its OTB partners could open their sportsbooks as well. That might not happen immediately, though.
It’s likely that whichever side loses at the DC appellate court will appeal to the US Supreme Court. Of course, there’s no guarantee SCOTUS will hear an appeal of the case or that if it does, it will rule differently than the appellate court.
The likelihood of an appeal might give the Seminole Tribe and others reason to hesitate. Regardless of the eventual outcome of this litigation, a decision by the appellate court isn’t coming anytime soon. All this development means is that Justice is taking a new approach to defending Haaland.