A federal judge has thrown out the compact legalizing Florida sports betting, calling the deal nothing more than “fiction.”
Monday night, U.S. District Court Judge Dabney Friedrich ruled in favor of two pari-mutuels that had sued the Department of Interior, arguing the compact violated the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
In her ruling, Friedrich agreed with the plaintiffs that the compact violated IGRA.
“Although the Compact ‘deem[s]’ all sports betting to occur at the location of the Tribe’s ‘sports book(s)’ and supporting servers, this Court cannot accept that fiction. When a federal statute authorizes an activity only at specific locations, parties may not evade that limitation by ‘deeming’ their activity to occur where it, as a factual matter, does not,” she wrote.
The case, West Flagler Associates et al v. Deb Haaland et al, was heard earlier this month in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. A ruling had been expected last week. The case was filed in D.C. by the plaintiffs because it is home to the Department of Interior.
DOI declined to comment on the ruling Tuesday morning.
Armando Codina, one of several businessmen who signed on to the case with West Flagler Associates, told the Miami Herald he was thrilled.
“I think this is a big victory. I couldn’t ask for more,’’ Codina said, adding he would continue to fight if the state and tribe file an appeal, as expected.
Where Does Florida Sports Betting Stand?
The 30-year compact was agreed to earlier this year between Governor Ron DeSantis and the Seminole Tribe of Florida. It gave the tribe exclusive rights to sports betting in the state. State and federal officials argued it was applicable under IGRA because the servers processing the sports bets would be located on tribal lands.
Deb Haaland, Secretary of Interior, approved the compact in August. Haaland is a member of the Laguna Pueblo and the first Native American to serve in a presidential cabinet.
It remains unclear what the short-term effect of the ruling will be and if sports betting in the Sunshine State, which began earlier this month, will immediately cease. As of this morning, bettors in Florida were still able to use the Hard Rock sportsbook app, which is affiliated with the Seminole Tribe.
State and federal officials are expected to appeal the decision. DeSantis hinted at an appeal Tuesday:
Statement from office of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on court ruling against sports betting in the state: pic.twitter.com/Nd5RZR4Gtp
— David Payne Purdum (@DavidPurdum) November 23, 2021
Bob Jarvis, a gambling law expert at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, predicted the ruling to be overturned — eventually.
“I fully expect that the D.C. Circuit will overturn Judge Friedrich, and if not the D.C. Circuit then the U.S. Supreme Court,” he wrote in an email to Gaming Today.
“I think it’s a crabbed interpretation of IGRA, [it] does not take into account what Congress would have done had it foreseen the rise of the internet at the time (1988) that it wrote IGRA; and does not comply with the purpose and spirit of IGRA, which was (and is) to lift tribes out of poverty by allowing them to use gambling as an economic lever,” Jarvis noted.
Next Steps For Florida Sports Betting
The compact has several layers of opponents in Florida, all for different reasons.
Florida Education Champions, a curiously named group advocating for a November 2022 sports betting referendum that would not give exclusive rights to the Seminole Tribe, praised the ruling.
“Our effort was always mutually exclusive from the compact. Florida Education Champions’ focus remains in securing the nearly 900,000 valid petitions to make the November 2022 ballot,” Christina Johnson, a spokesperson for the group, said in a statement Tuesday morning.
“Now is the time for all entities to come together so we may provide a competitive legal sports betting market for Floridians, while generating the expected hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenues for the Florida Educational Enhancement Trust Fund.”
If the state opts not to appeal, lawmakers could go back to the drawing board and craft a new compact with the Seminole Tribe. They would likely face the same opposition they saw in the spring, notably from groups that argued expanding gambling opportunities in the state — outside of physical tribal properties — goes against a statewide referendum from 2018. The initiative barred state lawmakers from approving new gambling without voter approval first. It was overwhelmingly approved.