A Washington, DC-based judge on Friday severely berated lawyers for the Biden administration for not being prepared to answer questions about whether a deal that gives the Seminole tribe of Florida control of sports betting in the state violates federal law.
U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich has given the U.S. Department of Justice until Tuesday to explain whether a sports betting provision in the Seminole-state agreement complies with India’s Gaming Regulation Act , or IGRA, which sets the framework for gambling.
Friedrich spent the first 30 minutes of a two-hour hearing arguing with Rebecca Ross, a lawyer in the Indian Resources Section of the Department of Justice, over the government’s reluctance to take a position on the issue at heart of a lawsuit brought by two parties in Florida. mutual operators who oppose the agreement.
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“It’s hard not to sit here and think that the whole government’s litigation strategy here is to delay the decision of this tribunal,” Friedrich, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, said around the end of the hearing.
The sports betting provision was included in an agreement, known as a pact, signed by Governor Ron DeSantis and Tribal President Marcellus Osceola, Jr. this spring and approved by the Legislature in a special session. of May.
As part of the 30-year deal, the Seminoles agreed to pay the state at least $ 2.5 billion over the first five years in exchange for controlling sports betting throughout Florida and the state. permission to add craps and roulette to the tribe’s casino operations.
The hub-and-spoke sports betting scheme is designed to allow players statewide to place bets online, with bets being executed through computer servers on the tribal property. The pact says that wagers made anywhere in Florida “using a mobile app or other electronic device will be deemed to be exclusively tribal driven.”
The Federal Office of Indian Affairs, overseen by Secretary of the US Department of the Interior Deb Haaland, in August allowed a 45-day review period to expire without taking any action on the pact. This effectively allowed the pact to move forward.
But the owners of Magic City Casino in Miami-Dade County and Bonita Springs Poker Room in southwest Florida have filed a lawsuit challenging the agency’s implied approval, arguing that the sports betting plan is a “legal fiction” because federal law does not allow betting that occurs. out of tribal lands. The plaintiffs also allege that the tribe’s sports betting arrangement will have a “significant and potentially devastating impact” on their businesses.
Haaland’s lawyers, who are represented by the Justice Department, argued that the case should be dismissed because the plaintiffs do not have “standing” to challenge the secretary’s actions.
Ross told Friedrich that “the court should not proceed to consider the merits of any claim” and that the government was not prepared to go beyond the question of standing. This drew a reprimand from the judge.
“Ms. Ross, I am taken aback by the government’s position,” she said.
Friday’s hearing — which was due to deal with a number of motions, including the government’s motion to dismiss and the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment — came just four days after the Seminoles launched sports betting online statewide.
Friedrich has repeatedly asked Ross if the government believes that online betting outside of tribal casinos occurs on tribal lands.
“We don’t have an answer to that question for you today,” Ross said in an exchange.
In another exchange, Ross said that “the contemplated game takes place entirely on Indian lands.”
“Stop there. Help me understand. I’m having a hard time keeping up with this post. All online games take place on tribal lands? Is that your position?” Friedrich interrupted.
“That’s what the pact provides,” Ross said, adding that the government needed more time to respond “if the court wants a clear answer to your question.”
The dispute has been ongoing since the ministry’s decision in August to allow the pact to enter into force, Friedrich said.
“I find it hard to believe that the government does not even know what its position is. … It looks like you should be able to answer a simple question, ”the judge said. “Does the federal government interpret online betting as taking place only on Indian lands?” Just yes or no, can’t you answer that?
“No,” Ross replied.
Lawyer Hamish Hume, who represents the plaintiffs, argued that the federal law is “focused on gambling on Indian lands.”
“The IGRA cannot be used to try to create some kind of loophole” to offer games outside of tribal lands, Hume said.
“This is not the purpose of the IGRA. And what has happened is that there are now millions of people across the state of Florida who are not located near Indian lands and who can place bets through their sports app on their website. on their phone or on their laptop, which would be illegal, and in fact not only illegal but now a crime, if committed by my clients (the pari-mutuels) or anyone else, ”he said. -he adds.
Hume also argued that the sports betting provision in the pact flies in the face of a Florida constitutional amendment, approved in 2018, requiring statewide votes for future gaming expansions. by chance.
To consider that the bets are placed on tribal land because the servers are located there “is a circumvention of the citizens’ initiative requirement in the Florida Constitution,” Hume said, adding that “the IGRA is being abused here to do something illegal in Florida. Constitution. “
“Sorry to interrupt, but in order to resolve this whole category of argument, do I necessarily have to resolve a Florida constitutional law question?” Friedrich asked.
“I don’t believe you do,” Hume said. “What they have done is come up with a pact that purports to govern games on Indian lands, but actually allows games to be played outside of land via the internet and try to bring them into the world. IGRA through this legal fiction of considering the placement of sports betting … exclusively on land. “
Friedrich asked Hume what she should do if she sided with the plaintiffs.
“Is the appropriate remedy simply to set aside the entire pact or just certain provisions?” ” she asked.
Hume said Haaland’s ability to approve a pact is limited to “the extent” of what is permitted by federal law. This would give courts “the flexibility to set aside approval to the extent that it has approved online games,” he said.
The judge appeared skeptical of the government’s arguments that the plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the pact.
“Didn’t they at least allegedly hurt here?” Asked the judge.
But Ross said pari-mutuel operators couldn’t show their customers would spend money elsewhere once sports betting became available.
The injury “had to be tangible, it had to be specific, and it had to be either real or imminent” to establish standing, Ross argued, again annoying the judge.
“How can you consider that no one would rather use the online gambling system than go to a casino?” Friedrich asked.
“It would be a guess,” Ross said.
Friday’s hearing also included brief arguments in a second lawsuit filed by two prominent South Florida businessmen and the No Casinos group.
They allege that the approval of the pact by the federal government “has a negative impact on the properties and neighborhoods of the applicants, in particular by increasing traffic in neighborhoods, increasing neighborhood congestion, increasing criminal activity, reducing open spaces and reducing the value of their properties ”.
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