Florida’s Seminole Tribe on Monday filed an appellant brief seeking standing in a federal court case that could determine the future of legal sports betting in the state. The tribe is appealing the court’s ruling that it is not a necessary party. If the Seminoles are granted their appeal, the tribe would likely move to have the case dismissed based on its claim of sovereign immunity.
The case in U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia pits two Florida parimutuels against U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. The case seeks to uphold a previous federal district court ruling that the Seminole Tribe’s 2021 compact with the state of Florida is invalid, meaning that the tribe does not have the right to offer digital sports betting.
There is currently no legal wagering in Florida — retail or digital — as the entire compact was vacated by a lower-court judge and a proposal from commercial operators to offer mobile betting failed to get on the 2022 ballot. Should the Seminoles win their appeal, they would be legally able to offer wagering. Oral arguments are set for Dec. 14.
The next opportunity for a ballot initiative would be in 2024, and it’s unlikely that the legislature would vote to legalize without the backing of the Seminoles, so the timing of when Florida would get legal betting currently hinges on a court decision. Legal experts previously told Sports Handle that no matter the decision by the appeals court, the loser will likely file an appeal — or an injunction against wagering should the Department of the Interior get a favorable ruling — with the U.S. Supreme Court, meaning live sports betting is still far in the future.
In the brief, lawyers for the tribe wrote that West Flagler and Associates and the Bonita-Fort Meyers Corporation not only failed to address the DOI’s argument surrounding a previous district court decision, but that the plaintiffs made a “false, straw-man argument that the Tribe seeks a broad rule whereby all IGRA compacts are unreviewable under the APA when an absent tribe or state raises its immunity under Rule 19” and that they make the “incredible argument that the Tribe is not a required party under Rule 19(a).”
The case was initially brought against the DOI because individuals cannot sue a tribe, which is a sovereign nation, but in the brief, the Seminoles take issue with the idea that they are “adequately represented” by the DOI and go on to say that the agency provided “inadequate representation.” West Flagler at different times has sued both the DOI and the tribe, and the cases have been combined in federal court.
Indian Country across U.S. watching
The volleys are the latest in a case that has captured attention across Indian Country, from California to Connecticut, and centers around whether or not the 2021 compact between the Seminole Tribe and the state of Florida is valid. The compact, passed by the state legislature in a May 2021 special session, signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, and later “deemed approved” by the DOI, would give the Seminoles a monopoly on retail and digital wagering. The DOI did not actively sign off on the compact; rather, it let the required amount of time lapse with no action, making it effective.
The parimutuels sued shortly thereafter, and a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the compact is outside the bounds of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and therefore should be vacated.
During the course of that case, the Seminoles launched digital sports betting via their Hard Rock Digital app. They failed to take the platform down after District Court Judge Dabney Friedrich ruled on Nov. 22, but did take it down after the appellate court on Dec. 3 upheld Friedrich’s ruling and began the process of hearing the case.
My summary/explainer of the sports betting mess in Florida for @MiamiNewTimes , with an apt description of the state at large from @EricRaskin https://t.co/pnm2JkngOh thnx to Jill Dorson, @MattRybaltowski, @jeffedelstein, @t_fin @sports_handle @US_Bets @BergenBrennan
— Mike Seely (@mdseely) November 29, 2021
Should the compact be considered legal, it could change the way that tribes are allowed to offer wagering. The generally accepted interpretation of IGRA is that it deals only with wagering on tribal lands and does not contemplate digital wagering. The 2021 Seminole-Florida compact would allow for statewide digital wagering, but require all bets to flow through servers on Seminole lands. That model is not in effect anywhere in the U.S.
The appellate court is made up of a three-judge panel rather than a single judge. The case was appealed to the higher court in early December of 2021, and at that time, the court immediately upheld the district court decision. The DOI later filed another appeal saying that Judge Freidrich had “abused [her] discretion” when she vacated the compact. Since then, the case was officially filed in the appellate court, an additional plaintiff asked to be heard and was denied, and the relevant parties have been trading briefs. The Seminoles in May stopped making payments owed to the state under the compact, claiming that the tribe’s deal with the state had been violated.
Legal experts told Sports Handle that it can take 12-18 months for a case to work its way through the appeals court. With oral arguments set for December, it appears a decision could come in early 2023, though an appeal would be expected.