Just before the holiday season kicked into full gear, the Florida sports betting lawsuit wrapped up the appeal process.
On Dec. 14, several parties involved in the appeal made their final plea to the D.C. Court of Appeals. The Department of the Interior, the Seminole Tribe and West Flagler Associates all got significant time to make their case in front of the panel.
Legal representatives for the State of Florida and Monterra AF were also given minimal time to speak.
Both are amicus parties in the case. Amicus parties are individuals or groups not directly involved in the lawsuit but invited or volunteered to speak in front of the court.
Monterra is an anti-gambling group led by South Florida businessmen who opposed the Florida gaming compact because of casino gaming expansion. West Flagler, the plaintiffs in the case, believed the sports betting provisions of the agreement violated federal law.
On the other hand, the state argued in favor of restoring the compact and bringing back Florida sports betting.
Federal government continues with convoluted argument
Of all the parties involved, the DOI is making the most complex argument. Therefore, it’s incredibly tough to follow and faced the most scrutiny from the judges’ panel and West Flagler.
The federal government argued that the compact does not violate the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. This completely contradicts Judge Dabney Friedrich’s initial ruling in the D.C. Circuit Court.
The new gaming agreement between the tribe and Florida gave the Seminoles exclusivity over online sports betting. Anyone in Florida who wagered online must do so through the tribe’s sportsbook.
Friedrich ruled that since the bets were not being placed on tribal land, the compact violated IGRA. Thus, she overturned the compact and shuttered the recently launched sports betting industry.
However, the DOI, the agency that approved the compact through inaction in August 2021, argued otherwise. Rachel Heron, part of the federal government’s legal team, reiterated to the judges that the part of the compact that allowed betting off tribal land was more of an ancillary subject in line with state law.
“What the federal government can say is that the compact that they actually crafted, whatever the party’s intent my have been, is property read to be consistent with IGRA. It is property read not to circumvent state law or to attempt to use IGRA as a ground for independently authorizing off-Indian land gaming. If the state statute that is related to this action were to be challenged in Florida State court, and were to fall, the compact that they crafted would give no independent authority for the tribe to continue to receive bets from outside Indian lands. Under those circumstances, the secretary was under no obligation to disapprove the compact that was presented to her.”
Secretary Deb Haaland’s obligations are key issue in DOI’s argument
Following that statement, Judge Robert L. Wilkins asked Heron if she rejected West Flagler’s assertion that DOI Secretary Deb Haaland needed to decide whether the compact complied with state law.
Heron said she rejected that idea. Haaland is only concerned with IGRA.
Wilkins pressed further, asking if Haaland should be concerned with the Wire Act or other federal statutes.
Heron responded by citing a section of IGRA that gave Secretary Haaland the authority to reject the compact if it violated federal law. But Haaland took no action. Under another section of IGRA, there is only one caveat for when the Secretary could go the inaction route.
“That is when the compact contradicts IGRA itself. For that reason, we read the statue to mean that the secretary does not have an affirmative duty to disapprove when a compact violates some non-IGRA federal law,” said Heron.
Wilkins asked whether those federal laws should be considered during the appeal. Heron wrapped up her argument by claiming an overturning of Friedrich’s decision is sufficient.
West Flagler raised those issues as alternative arguments. However, Heron claimed they don’t need to be considered to overturn the district court’s decision.
West Flagler stays on the attack
Heron spent most of her time clarifying her argument to the court. But West Flagler doubled down on the ones made in their filings while poking holes in the feds’ claims.
Speaking on behalf of the legal team for West Flagler, Hamish Hume said the compact gave the Seminoles a “monopoly.” Moreover, he said, “The government concedes that IGRA cannot authorize gambling that takes place off Indian land.”
Afterward, he attacked Heron’s basis for overturning Friedrich’s ruling.
“They are trying to have it both ways,” said Hume. “They are asking this court to reverse the district court and hold that IGRA approves the compact that authorizes gambling off Indian lands even when they say in their legal briefs that IGRA can’t authorize gambling off Indian land. What they are saying makes no sense and is going to be a cruel joke if this court accepts the argument.”
Hume added that state law should not be considered. And that the court should be able to interpret state law for themselves. He reiterated that regardless of state law, the compact doesn’t satisfy IGRA standards.
Judges give pushback
When comparing filings between the plaintiffs and the defendants, it appeared West Flagler had the edge. Their briefs were cleaner and easier to follow.
But during oral arguments, some judges pushed back on their arguments.
Judge Wilkins asked Hamish what part of IGRA states that a bet made online outside tribal land, but processed by servers on tribal land violates the law.
“It violates 2710 8(A) in the sense that it goes beyond what the secretary can authorize,” responded Hume. “The wording that it violates IGRA, we would agree with. Perhaps it would be clearer if I said it this way. It goes beyond what the secretary can authorize under IGRA.”
Wilkins followed up with a question comparing the issue to online commerce and the varying sales taxes between states.
Then, Hume pointed to court cases where the government defined online betting as both where the bet is placed and where it is processed.
Near the end of his time, Judge Karen Henderson referred to Hume as “resistant.”
Seminole Tribe makes final plea to become a relevant party
Unlike the DOI and West Flagler, the Seminole Tribe isn’t an actual party. Instead, they petitioned the court for limited intervention in the case.
If the court agrees, the tribe can file for dismissal, citing their sovereign immunity. The move would likely be successful.
Ironically, both the DOI and West Flagler agree that the Seminoles do not need to be a part of the case. But the tribe believes otherwise.
The DOI only argued the merits of the compact. Instead, the Seminoles would also argue the sovereign immunity of the tribe.
When will we see a ruling?
Unfortunately, the timeline is up in the air. Experts estimate the earliest we can see a decision is in Q2 of this year.
Regardless of the outcome, the losing party is almost certainly going to appeal. But if the D.C. Court of Appeals overrules the district court, the Seminoles could immediately relaunch their online sportsbook.