West Flagler takes Florida sports-betting battle to state's Supreme Court

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Haley Hintze Author Photo
Haley Hintze
Posted on: September 30, 2023 19:02 PDT

The increasingly long odds that Florida's West Flagler Associates, Ltd., will prevail in federal court in its legal battle against the online sports-betting monopoly agreement reached in 2021 between the state of Florida and the Seminole Tribe of Florida will enter a new phase in the coming months. West Flagler, the parent company of Magic City Casino and the Bonita Springs Poker Room, south of Fort Myers, has petitioned the Florida Supreme Court to invalidate the 2021 compact.

The new state-based filing will seek to have the 2021 compact declared unconstitutional by giving the Seminole Tribe exclusive rights to offer sports-betting services throughout Florida, in effect an illegal expansion of gambling in the state. A 2018 Florida constitutional amendment bars gambling expansion without approval via statewide referendum. The filing also asks the court to stay any attempt by the Seminole Tribe to relaunch its online services pending a ruling on its complaint.

West Flagler has nearly exhausted its federal-court options in its battle against the Seminole Tribe, which resulted in online sports betting being pulled off the market just a few days after the Seminole Tribe launched its services in late 2021. West Flagler offered several arguments arguing the terms of the Florida-Seminole Tribe compact was illegal, including that the Seminoles' plan to offer online gambling to off-reservation patrons violated the terms of the US's Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), which covers all forms of tribal-offered gaming.

Tribal-offered online gaming had previously been nixed in other court cases around the country, such as when California's Iipay Nation breifly launched an online bingo site. Under IGRA, such online services had been deemed to be legal as long as it catered only to on-reservation users; allowing state-wide access, it had been determined in Iipay and other nations, ran counter to IGRA's strict regulations defining tribal lands.

However, the Deaprtment of the Interior, the agency which includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs, allowed the Florida-Seminole deal to go into effect on a time-deadline default without directly dealing with the earlier IGRA issues. The DOI's surprising stance, which fueled the West Flagler lawsuit, accompanied a recent shift in federal legislative support in favor of modernizing IGRA. In turn, such proposed modernization has been targeted with protests my many Republican states' attorneys general.

West Flagler fighting Seminole monopoly over pending online-gambling industry in state

For West Flagler, one of the state's oldest pari-mutuel companies, the stakes are enormous. The 2021 compact the Seminole Tribe reached with Governor Ron DeSantis's administration allowed pari-mutuel outlets and other potential stakeholders to operate only as a sublicensed component of the Seminole online operation, including paying a share of profits back to the tribal nation. The Seminole Tribe was also authorized to license only a limited number of sublicenses, of its own choosing, further cementing the monopolistic nature of the compact.

The 2021 deal also casts a shadow over various poker operations in the state. Online-poker legalization in Florida was original part of the measure that the state's legislature approved to shepherd the Seminole deal into a fast-tracked approval. Most live card rooms in Florida are also operated as part of a pari-mutuel operation, often complementing (or replacing) other forms of gambling. Lacking access to offer online sports-betting services, such rooms could face financial hardship in the face of wider gambling options offered elsewhere.

In any event, online poker's removal from the earlier Seminole-Florida deal decreases the near-term chances of Florida becoming a regulated online-poker state.

State and tribe expected to argue timeliness of filing

Florida-based gaming attorney Daniel Wallach, who has been monitoring the controversial compact for years, believes that the state and the Seminole Tribe will argue that West Flagler's filing to the Florida Supreme Court was not filed in a timely manner, since the compact was signed almost two years ago. Wallach believes other issues the state and tribe will raise include whether West Flagler has standing to file its action, though he believes West Flagler will win easily on that point.

As for the timeliness issue, Wallach notes that the federal complaint was timely filed, and that US law generally rules against the need to have multiple, parallel actions being litigated at the same time, The federal action also focused on a federal matter, the alleged IGRA violation. The alleged violation of Florida's constitution, however, is a state-level matter, and it must be adjudicated within Florida's court system.

Wallach has authored a recent thread on social media examining many of the salient points within West Flagler's latest filing: