Happy day at Hard Rock: Seminoles get to keep blackjack - Florida Politics

Happy day at Hard Rock: Seminoles get to keep blackjack

A federal judge on Wednesday ruled the Seminole Tribe of Florida can continue to offer blackjack and other “banked card games” to its Hard Rock Casino customers in the state.

In a 36-page opinion, Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle said the state had broken an exclusivity deal with the tribe, part of what’s called the 2010 Seminole Compact, allowing it to keep its blackjack tables until 2030.

“The order declares that the exception has been triggered — that the tribe may conduct banked card games for the Compact’s 20-year term,” Hinkle wrote. In banked card games, players bet against the “house,” or the casino, and not each other.

The decision follows a non-jury trial held in Tallahassee last month. State officials had not yet responded to the decision by Wednesday afternoon.

The Compact “afforded the tribe the right to conduct banked card games without competition from card rooms,” the judge said. “This was perhaps the most important benefit the tribe obtained under the Compact. The most important benefit to the state was more than a billion dollars.”

The original deal actually wound up being worth more than $200 million per year in revenue share to state coffers. Blackjack and other gambling, including slots, has brought in billions for the tribe, making it arguably the richest American Indian tribe in the country.

“The Seminole Tribe is very pleased with Judge Hinkle’s ruling and is carefully reviewing it,” said Gary Bitner, Seminole Tribe spokesman. “The tribe believes the ruling provides for its future stability and ensures 3,600 Seminole Gaming employees will keep their jobs.”

A major point of contention was whether gambling regulators basically allowed the state’s non-tribal card rooms at dog and horse tracks to offer games that broke the exclusive rights to blackjack promised to the Seminoles in 2010.

The tribe said “designated-player games,” similar to poker, operated too much like, if not identically to, games like blackjack that are banked.

Ironically, after the tribe complained, regulators came down hard on such games, even after allowing them to flourish. They said they were flouting state law by allowing third-party companies to buy their way into the games, using a worker to act as a virtual bank.

And a bank is a bank is a bank, the judge said.

“A ‘banked game’ is a ‘banked game,’ whether banked by the house, a player, or someone else,” Hinkle found. “The state has suggested no meaning of the term ‘bank’ that works in this context other than the term’s obvious meaning: The person who pays the winners and collects from the losers.”

But the state couldn’t reverse course without egg on its face, his opinion suggests.

“Doubling down on its policy of allowing parimutuel facilities to conduct player-banked games, but perhaps recognizing that the games as conducted were a rather obvious evasion of the law, the department adopted a rule explicitly allowing and regulating the practice,” Hinkle wrote, later calling it “window dressing.”

The issue in this litigation, he added, “is not whether the rule is valid. The issue is the meaning of the Compact’s exception to the five-year limitation on the tribe’s conduct of banked card games. (And t)he exception applies if the state ‘permits any other person . . . to conduct such games.’ “

Despite his admonition at trial not to divine intent into his questions, Hinkle telegraphed his ruling during closing arguments.

“If I find that the rule authorizes a game that is a banked game, then the tribe can keep offering banking games for 20 years,” Hinkle asked Anne-Leigh Gaylord Moe, a lawyer hired by the state. The Seminole Compact provides for the tribe to keep its blackjack tables if the state allows others the same games.

Challenged by Moe that the rule in question didn’t allow that, Hinkle suggested moving to another issue: “You’re not going to win that argument; you’re just not.”

A renewed blackjack deal struck by Gov. Rick Scott earlier this year promised $3 billion over seven years in revenue share to the state, but it failed to gain approval from lawmakers earlier this year. It also contained key provisions that critics said expand gambling in Florida, such as allowing the tribe to offer craps and roulette.

Legislators trying to appease pari-mutuel interests added on even more measures to expand gambling for them, including slot machines and card games. That ensured its demise among still other legislators shy of seeming too cozy with gambling interests.

It wasn’t clear Wednesday whether the adverse ruling would provide the impetus for the state to finally OK a new deal to reclaim its gambling money, especially with lean budgetary times facing the state in upcoming years.

Jim Rosica covers state government from Tallahassee for Florida Politics. He previously was the Tampa Tribune’s statehouse reporter. Before that, he covered three legislative sessions in Florida for The Associated Press. Jim graduated from law school in 2009 after spending nearly a decade covering courts for the Tallahassee Democrat, including reporting on the 2000 presidential recount. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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