Supreme Court lifts stay on Florida compact with Seminole Tribe to allow online sports betting

October 27, 2023

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday lifted an administrative stay it had imposed on a circuit court ruling in favor of a gambling compact agreed upon between the state of Florida and the Seminole Tribe, according to Politico.

That move would appear to give the Tribe the go-ahead to resume offering sports betting, including on non-tribal land in Florida, through a mobile gaming app it created.

There were no dissents to the unsigned order to lift the stay, but Justice Brett Kavanaugh, while concurring with the decision, nonetheless noted some concerns that were raised with regard to equal protection issues, a particular federal law, and state law.

Florida agreement allows Seminole Tribe to offer online sports betting

Politico reported that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-led Florida legislature reached a $2.5 billion agreement known as a "compact" in 2021 with the state's native Seminole Tribe that allowed the tribe to build new casinos on tribal land and expand its gaming offerings, including sports betting, which the tribe proceeded to offer through a mobile app.

That led to a lawsuit from a pair of non-tribal casinos in the state and the argument that the Seminole Tribe's mobile sports betting app violated the compact, state law, and federal law by offering sports betting outside of tribal land.

A federal district court initially ruled in favor of the casinos against the Tribe, but that ruling was overturned by the D.C. Circuit Court, which determined that the dispute over the compact was a matter for state courts to decide -- and there is, in fact, a case pending before the Florida Supreme Court.

The casinos filed an emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to block the circuit court's ruling, and while Chief Justice John Roberts initially agreed to impose a temporary administrative stay on the appeals panel's decision, that stay has now been vacated, though the underlying fight on the merits is far from over.

State compact with tribe challenged under federal gaming law

At issue here, according to SCOTUSblog, is a 1988 federal law known as the Indian Regulatory Gaming Act, which allows for gambling on tribal land through compacts reached between tribes and states, albeit subject to the approval of the Interior Department secretary, though the compacts are automatically considered to be approved unless specifically disapproved by the secretary within a set period of time.

Given that Interior Sec. Deb Haaland declined to disapprove the compact between Florida and the Seminole Tribe, it went into effect in August 2021, prompting the lawsuit from the non-tribal casinos against the secretary with claims that the compact violated the IRGA and the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause in that it allowed the tribal casinos to offer online sports betting on non-tribal land that non-tribal casinos were barred from similarly doing.

As noted, a district court had struck down the compact as unlawful but that ruling was reversed by the appeals court as it was a matter for the state courts to decide, which led to the emergency appeal and the administrative stay on the reversal by the chief justice.

Kavanaugh agrees with lifting stay but also raises "serious" concerns

In an unsigned order issued Wednesday, the Supreme Court denied the application for a long-term stay and likewise vacated the brief administrative stay imposed by Chief Justice Roberts.

Justice Kavanaugh wrote in an accompanying statement, "I agree that the stay application should be denied in light of the D. C. Circuit’s pronouncement that the compact between Florida and the Seminole Tribe authorizes the Tribe to conduct only on-reservation gaming operations, and not off-reservation gaming operations."

However, he continued, "If the compact authorized the Tribe to conduct off-reservation gaming operations, either directly or by deeming off-reservation gaming operations to somehow be on-reservation, then the compact would likely violate the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, as the District Court explained."

"To the extent that a separate Florida statute (as distinct from the compact) authorizes the Seminole Tribe -- and only the Seminole Tribe -- to conduct certain off-reservation gaming operations in Florida, the state law raises serious equal protection issues," Kavanaugh added. "But the state law’s constitutionality is not squarely presented in this application, and the Florida Supreme Court is in any event currently considering state-law issues related to the Tribe’s potential off-reservation gaming operations."

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