U.S. Supreme Court moves Florida sports betting ahead but there’s no wagering yet

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday gave the go-ahead to an appeals-court ruling that could help lead to the Seminole Tribe of Florida offering online sports betting throughout the state.

The court lifted a temporary hold that Chief Justice John Roberts placed Oct. 12 on a ruling by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in a lawsuit about a gambling deal reached in 2021 by the tribe and the state.

The deal, known as a compact, included allowing the tribe to offer online sports betting, but it has drawn two legal challenges from Florida pari-mutuel companies. In one of the cases, the appeals court this summer upheld a decision by the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees gambling on tribal lands, to allow the compact to move forward.

The pari-mutuels then asked the Supreme Court for a stay while they prepare to file a petition seeking review of the appeals-court ruling. Roberts issued an order Oct. 12 that put the ruling on hold.

But on Wednesday, justices vacated Roberts’ order and denied the requested stay, according to a court docket. The docket did not include an explanation.

The Seminoles hailed the Supreme Court’s move.

“The denial of the stay by the U.S. Supreme Court is very good news. The Seminole Tribe of Florida is heartened by this decision,” Gary Bitner, a spokesman for the tribe, said in an email.

The pari-mutuel companies, West Flagler Associates and Bonita-Fort Myers Corp., also have filed a lawsuit at the Florida Supreme Court, arguing that the sports-betting plan violates a 2018 state constitutional amendment that required voter approval of casino gambling. That case remains pending.

West Flagler Associates is the former owner of Magic City Casino in Miami, which was originally Flagler Dog Track.

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The pari-mutuel companies filed the federal lawsuit in 2021 after Florida lawmakers ratified the gambling deal, which had been signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and Seminole Tribe of Florida Chairman Marcellus Osceola Jr.

While the compact addresses a series of issues, the lawsuit has centered on part of the deal that would allow gamblers to place mobile sports wagers anywhere in the state, with bets handled by computer servers on tribal property. The deal said bets “using a mobile app or other electronic device, shall be deemed to be exclusively conducted by the tribe.”

The pari-mutuel companies contend the compact violated the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, or IGRA, because it authorized gambling off tribal lands. U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich in November 2021 agreed with the companies, but the appeals court this summer overturned her decision.

In an Oct. 6 request to the Supreme Court for a stay, attorneys for the companies pointed to potentially far-reaching implications of the appeals-court ruling.

“The circuit [appeals court] opinion raises a question of nationwide importance regarding the ability of states and tribes to use IGRA compacts to provide for gaming off Indian lands,” the request said.

But last week, U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar filed a 29-page response that urged justices to reject a stay. Prelogar, representing the Department of the Interior, disputed arguments raised by the pari-mutuel companies and said it is unlikely the Supreme Court will ultimately take up a challenge to the appeals-court ruling.

Bob Jarvis, a professor at the Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad College of Law, said Wednesday’s decision signaled the Supreme Court would not take up a challenge to the appeals-court ruling.

“There is no reason for the Supreme Court to take this case up, and they will not take this case,” Jarvis told The News Service of Florida.

The professor pointed, in part, to a lack of conflicting opinions by appellate circuits on the issue. One reason the Supreme Court decides to hear cases is to clear up legal conflicts.

“Secondly, the Supreme Court is very interested in Native American cases. They’ve taken a lot of Native American cases, simply, and Justice [Neil] Gorsuch is particularly interested in Native American issues. But this case comes out the right way, because if it finds that tribe can do what it wants to do,” Jarvis said.

Jarvis, however, said Wednesday’s decision doesn’t mean gamblers will be able to place sports bets in Florida soon. The Seminoles are trying to fend off the separate challenge to the compact at the Florida Supreme Court, which hasn’t decided whether it will consider the case or refer it to a lower court.

That case could take up to three years to be finalized, according to Jarvis.

The Seminoles in 2021 briefly rolled out the Hard Rock SportsBook mobile app amid the legal wrangling but stopped accepting wagers and deposits after Friedrich’s ruling.

Jarvis said the tribe could risk alienating customers, have workforce issues and rack up costs if it re-launches the sports betting app and is forced to shut it down again. The tribe, which began offering gambling in Florida in 1979, has global operations and deep pockets.

“Yeah, yes, they would like to make more money. Everybody wants to make more money, but they have been very, very patient. They’ve been very, very good throughout their history of playing the long game,” Jarvis said. “And my prediction is they’re going to be patient.”

West Flagler holds three jai-alai licenses, while Bonita-Fort Myers Corp. does business as Bonita Springs Poker Room in Southwest Florida. They contend the sports-betting plan would hurt their businesses.