West Flagler Associates has petitioned the Florida Supreme Court to issue a writ of quo warranto to Governor Ron DeSantis. The casino operator argues that DeSantis overstepped the authority of his office in signing the gaming compact that allowed the Seminole Tribe to offer online sports betting throughout the state.
On June 30, 2023, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled against West Flagler in its federal challenge to the compact. It has since denied West Flagler’s petition for a rehearing and is considering its request for a stay to postpone the relaunch of Hard Rock Sportsbook.
In its decision, the DC Circuit Court suggested that Florida state courts would be the correct venue for West Flagler’s concerns. That raised the question of whether it would pursue a Supreme Court appeal or take the fight down to the state level. As it turns out, the answer is “both.”
West Flagler’s petition for a stay makes it explicitly clear that it plans to file a Supreme Court appeal. However, it isn’t waiting for that to play out before attempting its intervention through the state system. Success on either front would be enough to invalidate the compact and bring Florida sports betting to a complete and permanent halt.
What is a Writ of Quo Warranto?
If this were a typical civil complaint, West Flagler would need to start by arguing its case in trial court before proceeding through appeals. The reason it can go straight to the state’s Supreme Court is because it is suing for a form of exceptional remedy known as a writ of quo warranto.
This would be an order from the court demanding that DeSantis defend his actions and explain under what authority he carried them out. DeSantis will have an opportunity to reply, and the court may elect to hear oral arguments, but there won’t be a full trial because this isn’t a conventional lawsuit.
West Flagler argues—as it did in the federal case—that the compact violates the state’s constitutional prohibition on sports betting by allowing the Seminoles to take mobile bets from users throughout the state, not only those on tribal land.
The compact asserts that only the location of the betting site’s servers matters in determining where a bet takes place. West Flagler would like a court to contradict that assertion. The federal Circuit Court dodged the question, though SCOTUS could still offer an opinion when it hears the case.
At the federal level, West Flager was challenging whether the Secretary of the Interior had erred in allowing the compact to take effect. The DC Circuit Court held that she had not, though it refused to comment on the compact’s legality.
Now, West Flagler is challenging whether signing such a compact was within the scope of DeSantis’s legal authority as governor. That will hinge on the court’s assessment of the compact’s legality.
Alongside the compact, Florida lawmakers passed a 2021 “implementing law” to support it. West Flagler’s petition also questions whether they had the authority to do so without a referendum.
Different Venues, Different Ramifications
From West Flagler’s point of view, a win at either level would be good enough. Its goal is to avoid a Seminole monopoly on a product it would like to be able to offer as well.
However, the implications for the future of online gambling around the US are substantially less in this state-level battle. The Bureau of Indian Affairs is currently contemplating changes to its rules. If the final regulations are similar to the draft it released, they would allow tribes in every state with Class III gaming to demand negotiations for online sports betting or even iGaming using the same logic as DeSantis and the Seminoles.
In that light, a federal court’s express agreement or disagreement with that interpretation of bet location would set a hugely important precedent. The fact that the DC Circuit Court refused to offer an opinion has instead set the stage for legal chaos once the new BIA rules take effect.
By contrast, the decision of the Florida Supreme Court will be of importance mainly to West Flagler, the Seminoles, and the Florida betting public. However, it does have some second-hand implications in that a quick win for West Flagler could lead to it dropping its federal Supreme Court appeal. That would then leave it for other states to hash out individually, potentially creating a patchwork of different decisions across the US.