Court: FL Governor Exceeded Authority

Florida's high court says the governor exceeded his authority on tribal gaming.

The Supreme Court of Florida ruled July 3 that Gov. Charlie Crist exceeded his authority last November when he signed a compact that has permitted the Seminole Tribe of Florida to have Class III Las Vegas-style slot machines, blackjack, and baccarat.

However, several observers of the case said that under state laws, it would be several months, if at all, before the Seminoles would be required to remove those games and machines from their casinos in Broward County, Fla.

One possible resolution would have Crist obtaining the Florida legislature’s approval of the compact, perhaps in revised form, to make the Seminoles’ expanded games legal under Florida law.

The court, in a 6-0 opinion, ruled that “the governor does not have the constitutional authority to bind the state to a gaming compact that clearly departs from the state’s public policy by legalizing types of gaming that are illegal elsewhere in the state.”

Florida laws permit only Thoroughbred racetracks and other pari-mutuels in Broward and Miami-Dade counties to have Class III slot machines. Florida does not permit pari-mutuels or other entities to have blackjack and baccarat.

“This (ruling) definitely is helpful to us, but the Seminoles are still the 800-pound gorilla,” said Marc Dunbar, an attorney who represents Gulfstream Park and its parent company, Magna Entertainment Corp.

Gulfstream has Class III machines at its racetrack/casino in Hallandale Beach, Fla. Gulfstream is 10 miles from the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, which on June 22 became the first Florida casino to have blackjack and baccarat.

Earlier this year, the Seminoles upgraded from Class II bingo-like machines to Class III machines at that casino and a casino in the Broward County town of Coconut Creek.

Calder Race Course in Miami Gardens, Fla., is considering the building of a casino. But parent company Churchill Downs Inc. has not announced a prospective starting date.

Crist and the Seminoles signed their compact Nov. 14, 2007, permitting the tribe to expand its gaming while agreeing for the first time to pay Florida a share of its gaming revenue. Without an agreement with the state, the Seminoles had authority under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act to upgrade to Class III machines without making payments to Florida.

On Nov. 19, House Speaker Marco Rubio filed suit to void the compact. He asked the Supreme Court to rule that Crist had violated separation of powers laws and was permitting illegal expansion of gambling. Gulfstream filed an amicus brief to Rubio’s suit Nov. 28.

On July 3, the court did not rule on the separation of powers issue. But in addition to ruling that Crist granted the Seminoles an illegal expansion, it said state laws on gambling superseded federal tribal laws in the case. As of 3 p.m. EDT July 3, Crist had not issued a statement on the ruling.

Sole defendant Crist and the Seminoles, because of their direct relationship in the case, probably have until late August to file for a re-hearing from the court, said Dunbar, a partner in the Pennington Law Firm in Tallahassee, Fla. The normal deadline of 20 days will be extended because the court will be on recess from July 14-Aug. 15.

State Sen. Steve Geller told the Miami Herald that a federal court order would probably be needed to immediately force the Seminoles to shut down their Class III machines, blackjack, and baccarat. Geller, who is not seeking re-election, has sponsored several bills that would have permitted slot machines at all Florida pari-mutuels.

Dunbar said Gulfstream and other racetracks might consider seeking a court order or asking the Broward Sheriff’s Office to halt the Seminole games if they or Crist lose an appeal.

Gulfstream, harness track Isle Racing & Casino at Pompano Park, and Greyhound track Mardi Gras Race Track and Gaming pay a 50% state tax on net slot machine revenue. Under their compact, the Seminoles this year will pay the state $100 million. Indian Gaming Report, which monitors Tribal casinos, estimates that the Seminoles had more than $1 billion in gaming revenues in 2006.

The Seminole tribe blitzed South Florida television and radio stations with ads prior to its launch of blackjack. “They have been promoting themselves as ‘Florida’s only real casino,’ ” Dunbar said. “With blackjack, they were taking some of our slots and poker players. This ruling is a victory, and everything like this helps.”