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West Flagler Associates Make Final Pleas For US Supreme Court To Hear Case

The complainants in West Flagler v. Haaland submitted their reply to the Dept. of Justice’s reply to their petition to the US Supreme Court.

US Supreme Court In Washington DC
Photo by AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Derek Helling Avatar
5 mins read

For the petitioners in West Flagler, et al vs. Haaland, et al, it’s all over but the crying or getting ready for future hearings. Whether West Flagler Associates and its partners will see their challenge to the gaming compact between the state of Florida and the Seminole Tribe of Florida continue is up to the justices of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS).

The complainants have filed their response to the US Dept. of Justice’s (DOJ) reply to their petition for SCOTUS to hear their appeal of the case. While it represents their final chance to sway the minds of the justices, it probably won’t be the final time that counsel representing West Flagler will appear in a courtroom regarding the legality of that gaming compact.

West Flagler gets the last word in

There’s a give-and-take to being in West Flagler’s position right now as the party asking for SCOTUS to grant a review. While the onus is on West Flagler to convince the court that it needs to weigh in on this matter, West Flagler also gets the privilege of getting the last word in on the argument.

It did so on Tuesday when West Flagler replied to the DOJ’s response. The arguments therein don’t deviate greatly from its original petition to SCOTUS for certification.

Rather, they are somewhat stated differently to act as direct retorts to the DOJ’s arguments against SCOTUS granting the petition.

At this point, there will be no more filings from either party in this civil lawsuit. The only document that is forthcoming will state SCOTUS’ decision to either hear the appeal or not, along with the reasons behind that decision. It’s uncertain when that decision will come.

To understand West Flagler’s final arguments, it’s necessary to comprehend what this case is about and the path to this point.

A 2021 tribal gaming compact amendment fuels the controversy

In 2021, Florida’s state government and the Seminole Tribe of Florida agreed on an amendment to the gaming compact between themselves and the US government via the Dept. of the Interior (DOI). The compact made two significant changes to the framework.

The amendment allowed the Seminole Tribe to add new forms of gambling like several table games and in-person sports betting at its physical casinos within Florida’s borders. It also defined online sports betting throughout Florida via the Hard Rock Bets app as taking place on tribal lands because the servers hosting that activity were on Seminole territory.

Florida then made some changes to state law to account for the amended compact. Meanwhile, the Seminole Tribe sent the amendment to the DOI’s Bureau of Indian Affairs for approval. Under the US Indian Gaming Rights Act (IGRA), all gaming compacts between state governments and tribal authorities must be reviewed by the Bureau.

The Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, chose not to take any action on the amendment. Under the tenets of the IGRA, that meant the parties could consider it approved after 45 days. At that point, the Seminole Tribe started accepting online bets across Florida via Hard Rock.

West Flagler’s beef with the Seminole Tribe’s compact language

Enter West Flagler. West Flagler operates off-track betting sites in Florida. Under the terms of the gaming compact, it has to satisfy the requirements of the Seminole Tribe if it wants to offer wagering on human sports to its patrons.

West Flagler sued Haaland in federal court in Washington, D.C., arguing that the IGRA mandated that Haaland should have rejected the compact amendment because it authorizes gambling outside of tribal lands. The trial court found that the complainant and the Seminole Tribe discontinued accepting online bets on sports in Florida.

Haaland appealed, however, and the appellate court reversed the lower court’s ruling. That is the decision that West Flagler has asked SCOTUS to review. The US Supreme Court receives thousands of such petitions each year and only grants a few.

West Flagler’s latest filing puts the question it wants SCOTUS to weigh in on quite simply:

“Thus, the central IGRA question boils down to whether the Court of Appeals properly held that it could ‘interpret’ the Compact as not authorizing sports gaming off Indian lands. If it did, then no review is warranted. If it did not, even the Government implicitly concedes that review and reversal are needed.”

Essentially, West Flagler is banking on SCOTUS finding the matter of defining federal courts’ roles in interpreting gaming compacts important enough to take up its time. Regardless of SCOTUS’ decision, though, there is more legal drama to come.

Change in venue could be forthcoming

While SCOTUS may have somewhat signaled its position on the petition by denying a stay of the appeals court’s decision, there is still a chance that the justices could grant certification of the appeal. In that instance, there will be more litigation in this case in Washington, D.C.

Should SCOTUS deny certification, however, that would only represent a death knell to West Flagler’s complaint on the federal level. It’s entirely possible that West Flagler could have a lawsuit ready to file in a Florida state court and could submit it for processing the very hour that SCOTUS denies cert.

While the arguments on the state level will be different, they will seek the same end; the invalidation of the 2021 gaming compact amendment. There has already been a bit of a preview of what those arguments will look like.

West Flagler asked the Florida Supreme Court to intervene when it comes to Hard Rock Bet’s acceptance of online sports wagers in the state, which resumed in late 2023. The state’s high court in Tallahassee declined, however, pushing West Flagler to go the normal route of filing its complaint with a lower court first and then appealing undesirable decisions should they happen.

Florida’s Supreme Court could hear this matter again at some point in the future. The bottom line for Floridians is that the legality of their vehicle for legal online sports betting is not completely settled yet and may not be for some time. That vehicle may someday deliver more than just online sports betting to them if it stands.

This sports betting case isn’t really about sports betting

Should legal challenges to the compact amendment ultimately fail, there could be ramifications within and outside of Florida when it comes to online casino play. To what extent those consequences affect the rest of the US depends greatly on how those failures come, though.

Within Florida, the Seminole Tribe has already made it plain that it will attempt to expand its domination over online gambling to include online casino play. A certain set of circumstances could mean ramifications throughout the rest of the country, too.

Should SCOTUS hear the appeal and then uphold the appellate court opinion, other state and tribal governments could take that as a tacit approval of the system that Florida and the Seminole Tribe have worked out. They could try to replicate it.

That might mean greater access to online casino apps in more parts of the US, under tribal auspices. All of that exists purely in the realm of the hypothetical currently, though. At this moment, the tangible is limited to SCOTUS’ decision on West Flagler’s petition. Until that comes, it’s just a waiting game.

Derek Helling Avatar
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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

View all posts by 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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