By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Gambling on sports is off the table in Florida, at least for now, after the Seminole Tribe suspended its online sports-betting operations Saturday morning.
The tribe stopped accepting wagers on its Hard Rock SportsBook mobile app after an appeals court on Friday refused to put on hold a judge’s ruling that said a deal giving the tribe control over sports betting throughout the state violates federal law.
The Seminoles “will temporarily suspend operations of its mobile app in Florida” due to Friday’s decision by a divided three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, tribal spokesman Gary Bitner said in an email Saturday.
“Account balances for all current players will be refunded as requested,” Bitner said.
Bettors trying to use the Hard Rock app Saturday morning received a message saying the online sportsbook was discontinued until further notice.
“Although we are temporarily suspending the acceptance of new bets and account deposits, we remain committed to building the best place for sports betting in Florida,” the message said.
The app also said “all active bets for events starting before 11 a.m. ET on Dec. 4 will run and settle based on event outcome per normal.” All bets for events starting after 11 a.m. Saturday “will be voided and initial bet amounts returned to your app wallet,” it said.
“Your funds are safe & secure. The app will remain active for easy withdrawals,” the message said, advising users to check social media for updates.
Sports betting was included in a 30-year deal, known as a compact, signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and Seminole Tribe of Florida Chairman Marcellus Osceola, Jr. this spring and authorized by the Legislature in a May special session.
The “hub-and-spoke” sports-betting plan in the compact was designed to allow gamblers throughout the state to place bets online, with the bets run through computer servers on tribal property. The compact says bets made anywhere in Florida “using a mobile app or other electronic device, shall be deemed to be exclusively conducted by the tribe.” Under the compact, the tribe pledged to pay at least $2.5 billion over the first five years to the state because of sports betting and other benefits, such as being able to offer craps and roulette at tribal casinos. The Seminoles have paid the state $75 million since October, according to court records.
Owners of Magic City Casino in Miami-Dade County and Bonita Springs Poker Room in Southwest Florida challenged the compact in federal courts in Washington, D.C. and Tallahassee, alleging the sports-betting provision violates federal law and would have a “significant and potentially devastating” impact on their businesses. The Havenick family has owned the pari-mutuels for decades.
U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich on Nov. 22 invalidated the compact in the Washington case, finding that U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, whose agency oversees tribal gambling, erred when she allowed the compact to go into effect this summer.
Friedrich ruled that the deal violates the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, or IGRA, which creates a framework for gambling activity on tribal lands. The ruling centered on gamblers being able to place wagers throughout the state, rather than strictly on the Seminoles’ property.
“Altogether, over a dozen provisions in IGRA regulate gaming on ‘Indian lands,’ and none regulate gaming in another location,” she wrote. “It is equally clear that the (Interior Department) secretary must reject compacts that violate IGRA’s terms.”
Although the compact deems sports betting to occur at the location of the tribe’s servers, “this court cannot accept that fiction,” Friedrich wrote. The judge also rejected the Seminoles’ requests to intervene in the lawsuit, which was filed against Haaland and the Department of the Interior, and have it dismissed.
The tribe, which until Saturday had continued to allow sports bettors in Florida to place wagers on its mobile app after Friedrich’s ruling, filed an emergency motion last week asking the District of Columbia appellate court to stay Friedrich’s ruling.
But after a flurry of court filings this week, a panel of the court denied the Seminoles’ attempt to put Friedrich’s ruling on hold until their appeal is resolved.
“Appellant has not satisfied the stringent requirements for a stay pending appeal,” the order by Judges Cornelia T.L. Pillard and Justin R. Walker said. The order said Judge Judith W. Rogers would have granted a stay.
The appellate judges did not elaborate on their reasons, as is common in such decisions.
Saturday’s statement on behalf of the Seminoles said the tribe “looks forward to working with the state of Florida and the U.S. Department of the Justice to aggressively defend the validity before the appeals court, which has yet to rule on the merits of the 2021 compact.”
The statement noted that the state, the federal government and the tribe “have all taken the position” that the compact is legal.
U.S. Department of Justice lawyers said in a court document this week the government did not oppose the tribe’s emergency motion for a stay and that it had not decided whether to appeal Friedrich’s ruling.
As the tribe pursues an appeal of Friedrich’s ruling, the pari-mutuel owners are appealing a decision by U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor, who dismissed the Florida-based lawsuit challenging the compact.
Winsor in October said the pari-mutuels did not have legal standing to sue DeSantis and state Department of Business and Professional Regulation Secretary Julie Brown over the gambling agreement. The pari-mutuels last week filed a notice that they were taking the case to the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Friedrich also found that the compact violated a 2018 constitutional amendment that requires statewide voter approval for expansions of gambling, including sports betting.
But the judge noted that her decision “does not foreclose other avenues for authorizing online sports betting in Florida.”
For example, she wrote, the state could negotiate a new compact with the tribe “that allows online gaming solely on Indian lands.”
Friedrich also suggested that Floridians could approve a citizens’ initiative to allow online sports betting, an effort already underway that could get a boost from her ruling.