Florida justices turn down challenge to sports betting

Published on March 22, 2024 at 12:57 pm

Gambling companies challenging a deal that allowed the Seminole Tribe to offer online sports betting statewide can’t make their case directly to the Florida Supreme Court, justices unanimously ruled Thursday.

The decision is the latest in a string of legal defeats for parimutuel companies West Flagler Associates and Bonita-Fort Myers Corp., which have fought the sports betting plan in state and federal courts.

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The cases stem from a 2021 gambling deal signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and Seminole Tribe of Florida Chairman Marcellus Osceola Jr. The 30-year deal includes a “hub-and-spoke” provision allowing the Seminoles to accept mobile sports bets placed anywhere in the state, with the wagers run through servers on tribal land.

The state court challenge — filed by the companies and an owner, Isadore Havenick — alleges that the deal violates a 2018 constitutional amendment that restricted casino gambling. The deal, which is expected to bring in billions of dollars for the state, was ratified by the Legislature.

Thursday’s ruling did not address the merits of the lawsuit, but turned down the companies’ petition for what is known as a “writ of quo warranto,” which means “by what authority” in Latin.

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In the 11-page opinion, Justice Meredith Sasso cited a 1920 ruling that said quo warranto has been used to “test the right of a person to hold an office of franchise or exercise some right or privilege the peculiar powers of which are derived from the state.”

“But quo warranto is not and has never been, the proper vehicle to obtain a declaration as to the substantive constitutionality of an enacted law. For that reason, we deny the petition because the relief that petitioners seek is beyond what the writ of quo warranto provides,” Sasso wrote.

The gambling deal, along with giving the Seminoles control of sports betting, allowed the tribe to offer craps and roulette at itscasinos. The deal, known as a compact, also would allow the Seminoles to add three casinos on tribal property in Broward County.

The tribe pledged to pay the state a minimum of $2.5 billion over the first five years and possibly billions of dollars more throughout the pact.

The Seminoles in November began accepting mobile sports bets and in December launched the new table games and sports books at their casinos. Jim Allen, CEO of Seminole Gaming and chairman of Hard Rock International, told The News Service of Florida at the time that the tribe expects to pay the state at least $650 million over the next year under the deal.

Thursday’s ruling “is a major victory for the people of the state of Florida, who can count on billions of dollars over the coming years to fund important state needs,” Gary Bitner, a spokesman for the tribe, said in a statement.

“Floridians and visitors can enjoy statewide sports betting and expanded casino games, now and into the future. And it means the Seminole Tribe of Florida can have confidence in the future,” Bitner said.

The parimutuel companies’ lawsuit accused DeSantis and the Legislature of exceeding their power by allowing sports betting off tribal lands, describing it as an “abuse of authority.”

The lawsuit argued the sports betting provision violates the 2018 constitutional amendment, which said, in part, “for casino gambling to be authorized under Florida law, it must be approved by Florida voters.” The constitutional amendment included an exception for gambling that takes place on tribal land.

Pointing to previous court rulings, the lawsuit, in part, argued that quo warranto “is the appropriate mechanism to enforce the public’s right to have its governor and other state officers exercise their power in a constitutional manner.”

But Sasso wrote that “however far afield from its original function the current use of quo warranto has wandered, this court has never permitted use of the writ in the manner which petitioners seek — to address the substantive constitutionality of an enacted law.”

The parimutuel companies could challenge the constitutionality of the compact in a more-typical lawsuit in circuit court, Thursday’s ruling indicated.

“Ultimately, the relief that petitioners seek is beyond what quo warranto provides. We have never used the writ to test the substantive constitutionality of a statute, and we decline petitioners’ implicit invitation to expand the scope of the writ here. To do so would serve as an affront to an essential feature of quo warranto — that it is used to challenge the authority to exercise a state power rather than the merits of the action,” Sasso wrote.

The state court ruling is the latest setback for the parimutuel companies in their challenges to the gambling deal.

In a federal lawsuit, a U.S. district judge in 2021 sided with the companies. But an appeals court last 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 parimutuel companies last month sought U.S. Supreme Court review of the appellate court’s decision, arguing that nothing in federal law allowed the Department of the Interior to authorize gambling off of tribal lands. A key issue in that case is the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, or IGRA.

The sports betting part of the compact was used “as a backdoor around state constitutional prohibitions against online sports gambling conducted off tribal lands” and created “a sports gambling monopoly” for the tribe, the petition filed Feb. 8 at the U.S. Supreme Court said.

“This question is exceptionally important not just for the people of Florida, but for the nationwide precedent it will set for other state-tribal compacts if the Court of Appeals’ affirmative answer is left undisturbed — as an end-run not just around state-law prohibitions on gaming off tribal lands, but also around Congress’ limitation of IGRA’s federal imprimatur to gambling on tribal lands,” Hamish Hume, an attorney with the Boies Schiller Flexner firm, wrote.

West Flagler holds three jai alai licenses, while Bonita-Fort Myers Corp. does business as Bonita Springs Poker Room in Southwest Florida. They contend they could be hurt financially by the tribe offering online sports betting statewide. Representatives of the companies did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

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