Supreme Court Upholds Seminole Tribe’s Online Sports Betting Rights in Florida

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In a highly anticipated decision on Monday, the US Supreme Court declined to review an appeal against the State of Florida’s decision permitting the Seminole Tribe to run online sports betting through computer servers ensconced on their sovereign lands. This decision follows the previous ruling made by the highest court of the country, upholding Florida’s compact with the tribe to allow sports betting at venues such as the Seminole Hard Rock Casino and Hotel in Hollywood and other Seminole-owned establishments scattered across the Sunshine State.

The appeal, spearheaded by plaintiffs West Flagler Associates and the Bonita-Fort Myers Corporation, questioned the decision by the US Department of the Interior in 2021 to greenlight Florida’s revised Class III tribal gaming pact with the Seminole Tribe. The plaintiffs alleged that the updated compact, enabling the tribe to accept remote online sports bets from within the state, was in direct violation of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA).

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Celebrating the Supreme Court decision, the Seminole Tribe of Florida underscored their satisfaction in a statement, expressing gratitude for the refusal of the highest court to intervene in the case revolving around the Tribe’s Gaming Compact with the State.

Despite being at the crux of the issue, the tribe was not formally named as a defendant in the case. Lawyers representing the Department of the Interior justified the compact, stating that the digital nature of the bets, which are processed by computer servers housed on sovereign tribal lands, ensured the legality of the arrangement under the parameters of the IGRA.

In the wake of this legal triumph, the tribe’s online Hard Rock Bet sportsbook restarted operations on November 7, 2023. Their physical sportsbook at the six casinos in Florida, owned and operated by the Seminoles, followed suit shortly afterward in December.

The IGRA, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1988, permits federally acknowledged tribes to conduct Class I and II gaming — games of chance like Bingo and other small games — on their sovereign lands. Class III gaming which includes Las Vegas-style slot machines, live dealer table games, house-banked card games like blackjack, and sports betting, are permitted only if tribes enter into compacts with their host states.

A fresh compact was agreed upon in 2021, after Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis and Seminole tribe leaders coming together to review the tribe’s existing Class III gaming compact. The new compact included online and brick-and-mortar sports betting, along with new casino table games such as roulette and craps. In exchange for these new privileges, the tribe pledged a hefty sum of $2.5 billion in the first five years and an estimated total of $20 billion over the 30-year agreement.

West Flagler and Bonita-Fort Myers challenged the online betting aspect of the compact. They argued that letting a person gamble while not physically present on tribal lands was in violation of the IGRA. Legal representatives for the Interior Department countered that the bet is only processed when the computer server situated on tribal land executes it. Thus, they argued, that did not technically qualify as off-reservation gambling.

The Florida Supreme Court dismissed similar appeals from West Flagler and Bonita-Fort Myers. The court declined to halt Seminole online betting, suggesting that the plaintiff’s requests were not the appropriate means to challenge the compact.

Competing arguments swirled around the power of the Florida Governor and Legislature to expand tribal gaming through online sports betting. Detractors pointed to a 2018 referendum in which Florida voters ruled that any introduction of new commercial gambling forms should be done after public voting. This Supreme Court dismissal indicates that, for now at least, the Seminole Tribe’s sports betting operations are here to stay.