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D.C. Circuit Court Overturns Ruling Banning Florida Sports Betting

Robert Linnehan

by Robert Linnehan in Sports Betting News

Updated Jun 30, 2023 · 11:21 AM PDT

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May 8, 2023; Miami, Florida, USA; Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) reacts against the New York Knicks in the second quarter during game four of the 2023 NBA playoffs at Kaseya Center. Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports
  • The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals today unanimously overturned a 2021 decision that threw out a Florida gaming compact
  • The 2021 gaming compact between the Seminole Tribe and Florida included legalized retail and online sports betting
  • Appeals to the decision are likely

Florida sports betting scored a massive victory today, as a three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the the District of Columbia unanimously agreed to overturn a ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Dabney L. Friedrich that declared a 2021 Florida gaming compact violated the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA).

The U.S. Court of Appeals levied their decision today, vacating the opinion of the district court and ruling in favor of the U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, who initially approved the gaming compact.

“The District Court erred by reading into the Compact a legal effect it does not (and cannot) have, namely, independently authorizing betting by patrons located outside of the Tribe’s lands. Rather, the Compact itself authorizes only the betting that occurs on the Tribe’s lands; in this respect it satisfied IGRA. Whether it is otherwise lawful for a patron to place bets from non-tribal land within Florida may be a question for that State’s courts, but it is not the subject of this litigation and not for us to decide,” the judges wrote in their ruling.

Huge Win for Florida Sports Betting

Gary Bitner, spokesperson for the Seminole Tribe, said the tribe is pleased with the unanimous decision.

“The Seminole Tribe of Florida is pleased with today’s unanimous decision. It is a positive outcome for the Seminole Tribe and the people of Florida, and for all of Indian Country. The Tribe is fully reviewing the decision to determine its next steps,” he said in a statement sent to Sports Betting Dime.

Florida’s sports betting journey began in 2021 when the state approved a 30-year gaming compact that granted the Seminole Tribe exclusive retail and online sports betting rights in the state. The gaming compact granted the Seminole Tribe exclusive rights to online sports betting through a “hub-and-spoke” system, as well as expanded gaming rights, in exchange for at least $2.5 billion over the first five years. The “hub and spoke” system allowed sports bets to be placed anywhere in the state as long as they were processed by computer servers located on Tribal Land.

The gaming compact was thrown out by Friedrich in November 2021. Ultimately, Friedrich determined the compact violated the conditions set forth by IGRA that limits tribal gaming to the confines of tribal lands. The Seminole Tribe argued in the gaming compact that because the servers that processed the online sports bets were located on tribal land, then the bets themselves were placed on tribal lands.

The three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the the District of Columbia disagreed with her ruling.

“We see the case differently. IGRA ‘regulate[s] gaming on Indian lands, and nowhere else.’ Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Cmty., 572 U.S. 782, 795 (2014). Thus, to be sure, an IGRA gaming compact can legally authorize a tribe to conduct gaming only on its own lands. But at the same time, IGRA does not prohibit a gaming compact—which is, at bottom, an agreement between a tribe and a state—from discussing other topics, including those governing activities “outside Indian lands[.]” Id. at 796. In fact, IGRA expressly contemplates that a compact ‘may’ do so where the activity is ‘directly related to’ gaming,” the judges wrote in the ruling.

The Seminole Tribe-owned Hard Rock Sportsbook is the only approved operator in the gaming compact. The sportsbook seemingly celebrated the decision earlier today on social media.

What’s Next for Florida Sports Betting?

So, with today’s ruling, a switch can be flipped and the bright lights of sports betting can be turned on again in Florida, correct?

Well, not so fast. Florida could still be years out before a final decision on sports betting is made.

Daniel Wallach, a gaming law attorney, Founder of Wallach Legal and UNHLaw Sports Wagering, told Sports Betting Dime that depending on a potential appeal this could be the start of a one to two year process before a final decision is granted.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the the District of Columbia will have to issue a final administrative mandate of the decision before the gaming compact can again be declared valid. Wallach said the court will not issue this final mandate if the plaintiffs submit a timely request for an “en banc hearing” with the court or decides to take the ruling to the Supreme Court.

“The status quo has not changed until the D.C. Circuit has issued the final mandate of the case, the final judgement. It’s an administrative act which makes the appellate court’s decision final. But, it will not issue a mandate if there’s a pending petition for hearing en banc. Until the en banc process is completed, which could be weeks or months, likely be months, no activity will happen in the interim. Even if a rehearing is denied, West Flagler’s pursuit of a petition for writ of certiorari before SCOTUS will likely delay the issuance of the mandate as well,” he said.

As long as the plaintiffs are willing to “take the distance, which is SCOTUS,” the revival of sports betting in Florida  is unlikely to occur until all federal court processes are completed, Wallach said. This could be another year or two years before a decision is made.

En banc hearings are rarely granted by the U.S. Court of Appeals, Wallach said, as the court typically grants only one review for every 500 three-judge panel decisions, which makes this initial decision very important.

“The most important decision in this case is the one that was just made. If you accept the premise that rehearing en banc is rarely granted, and that certiorari is sparingly granted by the Supreme Court, that’s a heck of a two court parlay to have to run. The odds favor the three-judge panel decision remaining the final decision in the case,” he said.

But just because writ of certiorari is rarely granted by SCOTUS, Wallach said, it does not mean it will happen. This result of the case has national implications for tribal gaming and non-tribal sports betting operators.

“There are two factors that suggest the Supreme Court would be willing to take this case. The circuit court split and the importance of the issue across the country impact tribes, non-tribal operators, in the vast majority of states,” he said.

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