Florida Sports Betting Compact Faces First Legal Challenge

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Florida sports betting observers knew it was only a matter of time before the historic compact reached between the state and the Seminole Tribe of Florida was challenged in court. 

That time is apparently now.

Florida Betting Compact Challenged In Federal Court

On Friday, just as the long holiday weekend was beginning to unfold, a Miami-based pari-mutuel company filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida alleging the compact violates the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. The complaint, filed under the caption of West Flagler Associates Ltd. v. DeSantis, was brought by the controlling entities of Magic City Casino and Bonita Springs Poker Room against the Florida Governor and the Secretary of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation. 

“While we are fully supportive of Gov. DeSantis and his work to secure a new Seminole Compact, the lawsuit focuses on a very narrow aspect of the Compact — the legality of off-reservation and online sports wagering,’’ Isadore Havenick, vice president for public affairs for Southwest Parimutuels, the company spearheading the lawsuit, told the Miami Herald.

IGRA, the federal law that regulates gaming on tribal lands, stipulates gambling must physically take place on the lands owned and operated by the tribes. At issue in the Florida compact is the definition of “on Indian lands.” 

The compact, reached earlier this year between Governor Ron DeSantis and the tribe, gives tribes exclusive rights to operate sports betting. Under the terms of the agreement, the servers for the bets would be placed on the lands, but the actual bets could take place on mobile phones anywhere in the state.  

“It’s a slam dunk case,” tweeted Daniel Wallach, a Florida-based attorney who specializes in gambling law.  Wallach has been outspoken in his view since the deal was reached that the compact is illegal under federal tribal law. 

The case has been assigned to Judge Allen Winsor, who was appointed to the court by then-President Donald Trump in 2018. The complaint seeks a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief, namely that the Seminole Tribe and the state of Florida not be permitted to move forward with legal online betting off of Seminole property. 

What Is Next For Sports Betting

The compact is under review by the Department of Interior. Because the deal involves tribal issues it must first be approved by the Secretary of Interior. Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, is the first Native American to serve in a presidential cabinet. She has 45 days from the date of DeSantis’s signature. He signed off in late May, so a ruling from her is expected later this month. 

But Wallach told the Herald he thinks the plaintiffs are trying to catch Haaland’s eye.

“[T]he intended audience for this ‘pre-approval’ lawsuit may very well be U.S. Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland in order to persuade her to reject the compact and thereby prevent the compact’s severability clause from coming into effect and creating a brick-and-mortar monopoly on Indian lands,’’ he said.

Under the terms of the compact, if the phrasing around “on Indian lands” is thrown out, the only aspect affected is the mobile operations. This means the tribes would still be able to go ahead and offer sports betting in a traditional retail establishment, but the outside entities such as race tracks and gambling parlors who stood to make some money under the profit-sharing terms would be out of luck. 

Sports Betting Could Be On 2022 Ballot Or Before Congress

Complicating the situation is a referendum initiative proponents are hoping to put forward next year.  

In 2018 Florida residents approved a constitutional amendment that stipulated only residents — and not the governor or the legislature — could approve expanding gambling opportunities in the state.  

To help combat concerns the new compact circumvents this, sports betting proponents, led by FanDuel and DraftKings, have started gathering signatures to put a measure on the ballot that would allow sports betting not tied to tribal lands in the state. 

Moreover, there is talk of a bill being introduced in the US House of Representatives to permit online wagering under the IGRA, which would pave the way not only for Florida mobile sports betting but other states with a large number of tribal concerns, including California.

About the Author

Mary M. Shaffrey

Mary Shaffrey is an award-winning journalist who co-authored "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Government." She has spent more than 20 years covering government, both at the state and federal level. As a fan of the Baltimore Orioles and the Providence College Friars she feels cursed. Luckily she is a hockey mom too so her spirits aren't totally shot.

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