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Court Upholds Hialeah Provision in 2010 Law

A Florida court has ruled in favor of Hialeah Park on one count of a lawsuit.

A state court in Tallahassee, Fla., Nov. 22 ruled in favor of Hialeah Park on one count of a lawsuit that challenges its legal right to build a casino with Las Vegas-style slot machines.

In a ruling from the bench, Judge James Shelfer of the Second Judicial Circuit Court in Leon County said a Hialeah-related provision of Florida’s 2010 gaming law is not unconstitutional under Florida law.

Shelfer did not issue a written ruling and did not rule on three other counts of the civil suit in which the plaintiffs are Calder Casino & Race Course, Greyhound track Magic City Casino, and Miami Jai-Alai. Thus, legal issues remain on the question of whether Hialeah Park can have a casino.

Shelfer’s ruling was on the suit’s first count—an issue at the center of the suit’s allegations.

The plaintiffs maintain that the 2010 law’s provision that authorizes a casino for Hialeah Park is impermissible because a 2004 voter-approved state constitutional amendment allows casinos only at the seven pari-mutuel facilities in Miami-Dade and Broward counties that held pari-mutuel events in 2002 and 2003. Hialeah Park did not hold horse racing or other pari-mutuel events either year.

The Hialeah, Fla., track is preparing for its second Quarter Horse meet, which will open Dec. 3 and run 24 racing days through Jan. 23, 2011. Workers are renovating the northern side of the track’s grandstand, where Hialeah Park president John Brunetti hopes to open a casino late next year. On Nov. 19, Brunetti told The Blood-Horse long-range plans include a separate casino building.

Calder and Gulfstream Park are among the five southeast Florida pari-mutuel facilities that have slot machines.

On Nov. 22 Shelfer said the 2004 constitutional amendment did not have language that forever would allow casinos only at the seven specified facilities. Michael Olin, an attorney who represents Magic City and Miami Jai Alai, said: “The judge ruled that the provision of the statute passed in 2010 is not unconstitutional” in relation to the 2004 ballot issue.

Shelfer has not scheduled another hearing date. Olin said he and attorneys for Calder expect to meet soon with attorneys for Hialeah Park to discuss possible legal steps on other counts in the suit.

One remaining count maintains that the law’s provision that authorizes a casino at Hialeah Park is an illegal “special law.” The plaintiffs cite a provision of the Florida Constitution that such a special law cannot be passed unless it “is approved by voters” in the area affected.

Calder filed suit June 18. Magic City and Miami Jai-Alai filed a similar suit June 30. Shelfer later consolidated the suits.

Shelfer’s ruling on the 2010 law “was a critical point in the suit,” said Marc Dunbar, a partner in the Pennington Law Firm in Tallahassee. “The court clearly affirmed the legislature’s ability to authorize slot machines, and it obviously wanted to give slots to Hialeah,” he said.

Dunbar represents Gulfstream, which is not a party in the suit on a possible Hialeah Park casino and did not file any documents regarding the case. He also represents the Florida Pinball and Amusement Association, whose members manufacture, distribute, and own slot machines in arcades at restaurants and other locations in Florida.  In 1984, the legislature authorized slot machines at those facilities.

Shelfer’s ruling is only on one part of the Hialeah Park-related suit. But it has raised the question of whether it could stand as a precedent for the Florida legislature to approve slot machines at additional part-mutuel outlets without approval by voters in counties where those facilities are located.