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DOJ Files Response To West Flagler’s SCOTUS Appeal In Florida Sports Betting Case

Written By Derek Helling | Updated:
People Outside The U.S. Supreme Court Building

The United States Dept. of Justice took every bit of time that the US Supreme Court allowed to file its response to a petition for the court to hear an appeal of a lawsuit challenging the legality of online sports betting in Florida. Now that the delays have ended, the only questions are how soon the Court will decide on that petition and what that decision will be.

The argument in the DOJ’s response is quite simple, as is the question before the justices right now. Despite that simplicity, the ramifications of the Court’s actions from this point forward will be serious in Florida and beyond for many stakeholders.

Background of the Florida sports betting lawsuit

This case is West Flagler Associates, et al. v. Deb Haaland, et al. The claimants filed this lawsuit against Haaland, who is the Secretary of the Dept. of the Interior, nearly three years ago in the federal court for the Washington, DC district. West Flagler Associates operates off-track betting sites in Florida.

Although the trial court originally found for West Flagler, the appellate court in DC reversed that ruling. That decision is what West Flagler petitioned the Supreme Court to review. The case involves the legality of the current framework for legal online sports betting in Florida.

Before West Flagler filed this lawsuit, the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the state of Florida agreed to a compact amendment that — coupled with a change in Florida law — effectively gave the Tribe a monopoly over online sports betting in the state. After those parties agreed to the terms of the amendment, Haaland let it become official by choosing not to act within the prescribed 45-day window.

West Flagler originally argued to the court that Haaland had a legal duty to reject the compact amendment because it violated multiple federal laws. While the appeals court rejected that argument, the party pursuing this appeal hopes that the justices of the Supreme Court will find some merit in its argument that a review is necessary.

The DOJ’s argument is simply that no such review is warranted on this matter.

DOJ with the implied advantage in this situation

As this is a civil complaint and not a criminal action, all the onus to prove its case is on West Flagler. That includes putting forth a convincing argument as to why the appeals court in this litigation erred and the case is important enough for the Supreme Court to spend its time on the matter.

On the other side of things, the job is relatively simple for the DOJ. It just needs to keep the Court from taking up the case. On that point, its response is quite straightforward. The DOJ states that the appellate court was correct in its decision and thus, there’s no need for the Supreme Court to grant West Flagler’s petition.

If the justices agree with the DOJ, then the appeals court decision essentially resolves this matter on the federal level. There are far more consequences of that decision for the parties involved in this dispute and myriad possibilities should the Court take up the case.

What happens if SCOTUS denies the petition?

In the short term, that probably prompts West Flagler to go ahead with a challenge to the ongoing online gambling in Florida in a state court. West Flagler tried to go that route in an expedited manner already, attempting to circumvent the normal route and take the matter directly to the Florida Supreme Court.

Florida’s Supreme Court rejected that attempt, however, insisting on West Flagler following the normal course and initiating its complaint in a lower court in the state. That would likely be West Flagler’s next move.

From a broader perspective, the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the state could see SCOTUS’ denial of the appeal as a tacit approval of its framework for online gambling in the state. Tribal leaders and state officials could soon begin expanding that framework to give Hard Rock Bet similar exclusivity for online casinos in Florida as well.

A timeline for the actual execution of that expansion could depend on action in state courts, however. Such a conversation becomes far more complicated if the US Supreme Court takes up the case, though.

What happens if SCOTUS grants the petition?

In that instance, West Flagler probably continues to bide its time regarding any state-level lawsuits pending the result of its appeal to the US Supreme Court. The Court may ultimately agree with the appellate court to West Flagler’s chagrin.

Whatever the Court decides in this case, if it hears the appeal, could have far-reaching consequences when it comes to online gambling within the scope of tribal gaming. Its decision would set a precedent for what is permissible throughout the nation.

For example, if SCOTUS does agree with the appeals court’s decision, that might inspire other state governments and tribal gaming authorities to replicate what Florida and the Seminole Tribe have done. Potential places where that could happen include New Mexico, Washington state, and Wisconsin.

In all three of those states, gaming is mostly controlled by tribal casino operators and online gambling currently remains illegal. However, tribal gaming interests within those states are not as much of a monolith as they are in Florida, where only the Seminole Tribe controls gambling.

Should SCOTUS find fault with the appellate court ruling instead, that could send Florida and the Seminole Tribe back to the drawing board. Hard Rock Bet could have to cease taking online sports wagers in Florida, too.

At this point, all that is before the Court is whether West Flagler’s petition merits the Court’s time. With the DOJ’s response to the petition in, the watch for a decision from the Court on that matter either way begins now.

Photo by AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
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Derek Helling

Derek Helling is the assistant managing editor of PlayUSA. Helling focuses on breaking news, including finance, regulation, and technology in the gaming industry. Helling completed his journalism degree at the University of Iowa and resides in Chicago

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