The Seminole Tribe’s Sports Betting Appeal To Be Heard This Week In Florida

Written By Brant James on November 30, 2021 - Last Updated on March 7, 2022

The Seminole Tribe of Florida is using the same legal arguments attempting to convince the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to allow its sports betting compact to stand…that failed last week with US District Judge Dabney Friedrich.

It should learn this week if it worked.

The plaintiffs in the original suitWest Flagler Associates and the owners of Bonita Springs Poker Room – filed responses on Nov. 30 to respond to the Tribe’s request for an emergency stay order that was supposed to halt its offering of legal sports betting in Florida. It didn’t, making this legal maneuvering increasingly theatrical. The Department of the Interior filed documents on Tuesday stating: “Per this Court’s order of November 26, the federal government advises that, while it does not join in the Tribe’s motion for stay pending appeal and does not agree with all analysis presented in that motion, it also does not oppose the motion.”

The Tribe submitted its official response – again asserting what it sees as damage to its sovereignty and potential economic loss – if the stay is not granted. In the paperwork, it also refuted the claim it would conduct “illegal gambling” if denied, although it was still offering bets in Florida as of Dec. 1.

How West Flagler responded to appeal request

The plaintiff’s assertions continued to hammer the fact that precedent deems its sports betting business illegal in its current form. From its response filed on Tuesday:

  •  The Compact is unambiguously unlawful, and is causing irreparable
    harm to Plaintiffs-Appellees.
  • The Tribe’s legal arguments for reversing the District Court’s judgment
    make no attempt to defend the legality of the Compact, but instead seek
    to block judicial review entirely—if accepted, these arguments would
    foreclose all judicial review of all Interior approvals of IGRA
    compacts.
  •  The Tribe has been disingenuous with the Court over its alleged
    irreparable harm: while telling the Court that, absent an emergency
    stay, it “stands to lose” tens of millions in revenue, it is telling its
    customers (over a week after the District Court’s ruling) that its
    unlawful online sports gaming “remains fully open to all players” and
    “there is no need to worry.” …  Unless and until the Tribe
    commits that it will stop offering online sports gaming absent a stay,
    this Court should not credit the Tribe’s claims of irreparable harm.
  •  As explained below, even if the Tribe commits to ceasing its unlawful
    online sports betting, the irreparable harm it claims to suffer is entirely
    self-inflicted, as the unlawful nature of this gaming was known from
    the outset. The Tribe rushed to offer online sports betting mere days
    before the hearing on Plaintiffs-Appellees’ summary judgment motion
    and the Tribe’s motions to intervene and dismiss.”

Judge called Florida mobile system a ‘fiction’

Friedrich deemed that the potentially groundbreaking ability of the Seminoles to facilitate bets off tribal lands was a “fiction” in a ruling last week that the entire 30-year gambling compact with the state of Florida was void. The “hub-and-spoke” plan currently underway allows for state-wide mobile via servers on tribal lands.

Thing is, the Seminoles, via their Hard Rock Digital app, never stopped taking bets that many legal scholars now consider this a direct violation of federal law. The app was soliciting deposits in exchange for matching funds as recently as Monday.

So in summation: the Seminoles were ordered to stop offering sports betting, didn’t, filed an appeal and a motion to stay Friedrich’s order in US District Court, failed, continued offering wagers, then took their case to the appellate level using the same arguments.

The Tribe would have until Wednesday to offer a response to West Flagler and the owners of the Bonita Springs Poker Room – both are pari-mutuel outlets – before a three-judge panel ruled some time this week.

Both Seminole appeals cited what it believed were precedents in the Department of the Interior tacitly approving the compact after assistant secretary Bryan Newland wrote in his opinion that it did not violate the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Friedrich disagreed.

DOI again tried to navigate the quagmire without taking a firm stand on either side, asserting that the initial West Flagler suit should have been dismissed but not stating that it couldn’t verify that the Tribe would suffer real damages with the compact is voided. It concluded in court documents: “For the foregoing reasons, the federal government does not oppose the Tribe’s emergency motion for stay pending appeal.”

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Florida gambling rules supposedly reverted to old compact

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who spearheaded negotiations on the new deal and handed it off to a Republican-led state legislature, has publically supported the compact in the aftermath of Friedrich’s ruling.

By striking down the entire compact, Friedrich sent the governance of gambling in Florida back to the previous compact where sports betting was not legal. With the 2021 deal invalidated, the Seminoles also lost the right to offer retail sports betting – which was not being contested in court – and craps and roulette in their six Florida casinos. Hard Rock-branded craps and roulette tables were prominently positioned in the Seminole Hard Rock & Casino Tampa last week, with locks on see-through cases containing stacks of chips.

Photo by Africa Studio / Shutterstock
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Brant James

Brant James is a veteran journalist who has twice been recognized in the Associated Press Sports Editors Awards, most recently in 2020. He's covered motorsports, the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball among a myriad of others beats and written enterprise and sports business for publications including USA TODAY, ESPN.com, SI.com.

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