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US government seeking to flip ruling on Seminole betting compact

Legal representatives for the United States government have asked the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to overturn the ruling of a lower court that invalidated the sports betting compact between the Florida state government and the Seminole Tribe. The compact, signed last year by Governor Ron DeSantis and the chairman of the tribe, Marcellus Osceola Jr, essentially made the Seminole nation the only party in the state that was allowed to offer gambling on sports.

The Florida sports betting compact came under fire from several parties — especially the West Flagler Association (owners of Bonita Springs Poker Room and Magic City Casino), who see the agreement as illegal and a way to circumvent the law preventing gambling expansion in the state without voters approving. The operator, with gambling opponents and businessmen in Florida, all signed separate lawsuits against the US federal government — specifically against Deb Haaland, the Minister of Interior — for letting the agreement stand. The plaintiffs argue the minister acted unlawfully when she approved an agreement which, according to them, directly contravenes state law.

Though state laws prohibit tribes from offering sports betting outside reservations, the compact found a workaround by using the hub-and-spoke model. This will essentially see the tribe offer sports betting services to residents of Florida from servers located on the reservation. The plaintiffs saw it as “an attempt to use federal Indian gaming law as a way to authorize sports betting in Florida”.

The deal came into effect with the Seminole Tribe agreeing to pay the state at least $2.5 billion over the first five years of the 30-year deal. However, in November 2021, Judge Dabney Friedrich overturned the compact on the grounds that it violated both federal and state laws.

“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,” Freidrich wrote.

“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.”

Though the tribe appealed the decision, the appellate court upheld Judge Friedrich’s ruling and threw out the case. However, the feds are back on the case in front of a three-judge panel pleading to overturn the invalidation and reinstate the compact.

Lawyers for the US Department of Interior are arguing the Minister of Interior acted within her rights as provided by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act by allowing the compact to go into effect. One of the attorneys for the Interior Department, Rachel Heron, stated: “The district court’s contrary conclusion was based on an error of law, although admittedly a relatively narrow one.”

They also argued that the compact was consistent with the IGRA and Florida State laws. On the other hand, the plaintiffs are asking for the compact to remain invalidated because validating it would mean authorizing gaming off tribal lands.

The decision of the court on the matter will have a great impact in Florida and beyond, as it will set precedence for other states in terms of the boundaries of tribal gaming. If the compact is validated, it will effectively give the Seminole Tribe the green light to offer sports betting within the state.

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