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Seminole Tribe, State At Odds Over Card Games

Seminole Hard Rock building
Seminole Hard Rock Casino

Lawyers for the state and the Seminole Tribe presented opening arguments Monday in a legal battle that could determine whether the tribe can continue to offer “banked” card games like blackjack at most of its Florida casinos.
The case centers on the Seminoles' “exclusive” right to operate banked card games at five of the tribe's seven casinos, part of a broader, 20-year deal, called a compact, signed with the state in 2010. A five-year agreement regarding the cards expired last summer, but the Seminoles have continued to offer the games.

The tribe is accusing the state of failing to negotiate in “good faith” on a new agreement. Its case is centered on two types of games — controversial "designated-player" card games and slot machines that simulate blackjack — authorized by state gambling regulators at pari-mutuel facilities.

But the state wants a federal judge to order the Seminoles to stop operating the banked card games. It insists that the blackjack-like games at pari-mutuels are, in fact, slot machines, and that the designated-player games authorized by the state do not violate the compact, even if the manner in which they are being played at some cardrooms might.

The "seminal issue in this case is exclusivity," the tribe's lawyer, Barry Richard, told U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle at the outset of a trial Monday morning. The trial is slated to last all week but could wrap up as early as Wednesday.

"Everything … really flows from that issue," Richard said.

The 2010 agreement gave the Seminoles the exclusive rights to operate slot machines outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties and also gave the tribe exclusivity regarding banked card games, in which players compete against the "house" instead of each other, as they do in games such as poker. In exchange for the banked card games, the tribe promised to pay the state a minimum of $1 billion over five years, an amount that it has exceeded. The terms of the compact gave the Seminoles a 90-day "grace period" after the agreement expired on July 31, 2015, to continue operating the banked card games.

But after mediation failed, the tribe filed a lawsuit against the state, alleging that Florida officials had failed to negotiate in "good faith" on a new deal. The tribe is accusing the state of forcing the Seminoles to negotiate an entirely new compact, instead of focusing on the card games alone.

The tribe and Gov. Rick Scott at one point reached a proposed agreement, but it needed legislative ratification. Lawmakers requested a "wish list" from the Seminoles, Richard said. The Legislature never responded to the "wish list," and never approved the proposed compact, which surfaced during the final days of the 2015 legislative session.

Scott and the tribe struck another deal in December. Under the new proposal, the Seminoles agreed to pay the state $3 billion over seven years in exchange for being able to offer craps and roulette.

But lawmakers failed to approve that compact during this year's session, which ended in March.

Compacts between the state and tribes are governed by the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, also known as IGRA.

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