Florida and the Seminole Tribe Compacting History

The gaming compact between the Seminole Tribe of Florida the state enables the tribe to operate multiple casinos. Those properties include two major casino resorts, Seminole Hard Rock Hollywood and Seminole Hard Rock Tampa.

The current tribal-state compact was the product of a lengthy and sometimes contentious history of negotiating, and in fact continues to be a source of friction today among multiple parties. In 2021 the tribe and Gov. Ron DeSantis agreed upon a new compact and the Florida legislature signed off as well. But later in the year a federal judge ruled the new compact violated the law and vacated the new compact. The ruling was being appealed in 2022. As a result, the tribe and state continue to operate under the previous compact. In late June 2023, the D.C. Court of Appeals overturned the decision that invalidated the compact, an appeal for a rehearing was filed in August 2023. Legal experts say the case could be appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Here is a quick rundown of the history of compacting between the Seminole Tribe and Florida, including the full backstory of what led to the first Florida-Seminole compact and discussion of what may come next.

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act

Before there was a compact between the Seminole Tribe and Florida, two tribes in California challenged state and local efforts to close down bingo and card game facilities on tribal lands. The landmark tribal sovereignty case, California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, resulted in a Supreme Court ruling in favor of the tribes in early 1987.

The holding that states could not intrude onto tribal land and enforce state gaming law prompted Congress to act.

Led in the Senate by Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the legislature passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), and the legislation was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in Oct. 1988.

The birth of the compacting process

Under IGRA, federally recognized tribes could conduct Class II games like bingo and non-banked card games on tribal land without having to negotiate with a state. That said, the tribes did need to adopt a “gaming ordinance” approved by the National Indian Gaming Commission.

Class II gaming allows tribal governments to operate without state approval. However, the same is not true for Class III gaming which includes casino-style gambling and sports betting. According to IGRA, the tribes have to negotiate a gaming compact with their home state that lawmakers must ratify. Beyond that, the US Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs likewise has to approve the compact. After receiving such federal approval, the compact becomes official upon its publication in the Federal Register.

Such compacts are subject to several restrictions. One is that the tribes can only offer games that are legal in the state. Another is a requirement that tribes and states negotiate in good faith to reach an agreement regarding what games the tribes can offer.

These agreements have typically meant that a tribe agrees to share some revenue with states, which cannot otherwise tax tribes, in exchange for some type of exclusivity. The revenue-sharing agreements vary widely from tribe to tribe and from state to state. That said, in all cases both the tribes and their states stand to benefit from the tribes being able to offer casino gambling on their lands.

A trip to the Supreme Court and Florida’s first tribal-state compact

Even before the Supreme Court decision that led to IGRA, the Seminole Tribe had been actively pursuing gaming in Florida. During the late 1970s, the tribe squared off against the Broward County Sheriff in federal court and then the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals over a bingo facility operated on Seminole territory, and the Tribe prevailed.

Following the passage of IGRA, the Seminole Tribe requested the state of Florida enter into negotiations to enable the tribe to offer Class III gaming in the state. Lawton Chiles, then the governor, refused, and the tribe sued.

The case worked its way up to the Supreme Court. In 1996, the Court held that Congress could not abrogate the state’s sovereign immunity, thereby subjecting them to lawsuits from entities within the state. This could have been a major blow to IGRA, but the statute has persisted. The following year, the Seminole Tribe assumed full control of gaming operations on their Hollywood reservation.

In 1999, the tribe broke ground for the Coconut Creek and Brighton casinos. Two years after that they did the same for the massive Hollywood Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. By 2004, the Tribe opened their Hard Rock property in Tampa.

Following about 20 years of back-and-forth, the US Department of the Interior approved the first gaming compact between then-Gov. Charlie Christ and the Seminole Tribe on June 24, 2010.

The 2010 deal allowed the Seminoles to offer slot machines, banked card games and poker. The compact excluded craps and roulette, however, as those games aren’t otherwise authorized by Florida law. In exchange, the tribe would send more than $200 million each year to the state.

Disagreements between Seminoles and Florida over exclusivity

The 2010 compact’s exclusivity on banked card games expired in 2015. Since the state did not immediately renew it, the Seminole suspended payments to the state.

A highly public battle ensued over the airwaves of Florida television and radio as both sides sought to win over public opinion. Eventually, then-Gov. Rick Scott reached a deal with tribal representatives. However, the new agreement would not be ratified quickly. Eventually the impasse ended and the agreement was restored in 2018 as were tribal payments to the state.

However, less than a year later the agreement once more went awry. In May 2019, Marcellus Osceola Jr., chairman of the Seminole Tribal Council, notified Gov. Ron DeSantis that the tribe would again suspend revenue payments to the state until Florida. The payments would not resume, said Osceola, until Florida stopped other properties such as the commercial pari-mutuels from offering games over which the tribe had exclusivity.

The 2021 Seminole-Florida compact

Given so much strife, it was surprising when it was announced in April 2021 that the tribe and the state had reached an agreement on a new compact with Gov. DeSantis. The new 30-year agreement would pave the way for legal sportsbooks in Florida. Additionally, according to the new compact the Seminoles would not only resume their payments to the state, but increase them to at least $500 million a year over the next five years.

As noted above, lawmakers voted to approve the new compact in May 2021. The new agreement allowed the tribe to offer retail sports betting at its properties and to add craps and roulette. The compact additionally allowed the Seminoles to offer statewide mobile wagering on sports, a controversial measure that made it entirely unique among compacts in the US. In August 2021 the US Department of Interior chose not to approve or deny the compact, which meant it was approved by default.

That allowance of statewide mobile sports betting proved particularly meaningful when in Nov. 2021 a federal judge ruled the new compact violated IGRA and vacated it. That ruling meant the tribe and state have reverted to the previous, much-contended compact. Since then, the Seminoles are sending all revenue share payments into an escrow account rather than to the state pending a resolution to the litigation.

What’s to come?

The U.S. Department of the Interior appealed the district court ruling. Like the district court, the Seminole Tribe filed a motion for limited intervention.

The D.C. Court of Appeals overturned the ruling in June 2023, and the plaintiffs in the case filed for a rehearing on Aug. 14, 2023. Legal experts say the case could be appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The legal battle could also draw out in the state courts if plaintiffs want to challenge the compact.