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Judge Rejects Track's Bid to Change Gambling Ruling

January 5, 2017 - 10:00pm

A federal judge has summarily rejected a request from a tiny Northwest Florida pari-mutuel to reconsider his decision in a legal battle between the Seminole Tribe and the state about gambling at tribal casinos.

More than a month after U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled in favor of the Seminoles, Gretna Racing in Gadsden County sought in December to intervene in the long-running case.

Hinkle's ruling in November allowed the tribe to continue offering "banked" card games, such as blackjack, at most of its casinos.

The ruling addressed issues related to "designated player" card games, also known as "player banked" games, that have been offered in recent years at pari-mutuel facilities across the state. Hinkle ruled that the games violate a 2010 agreement that gave the Seminoles exclusive rights to conduct blackjack and other banked games.

Part of the 2010 agreement authorizing banked card games expired in 2015, prompting the legal dispute. By ruling that the designated-player games violated the agreement, Hinkle cleared the way for the tribe to continue offering blackjack and the other games.

Pari-mutuels --- allowed by state law to conduct games only in which players compete against each other --- first launched the designated-player games in 2011. Florida gambling regulators approved a rule governing the games in 2014.

The state's lawyers insisted that the games, in which a player acts as the "bank," do not violate the Seminole agreement --- also known as a compact --- or state law, even if the manner in which they are being played at some cardrooms might.

But Hinkle, siding with the tribe in his November order, disagreed.

"The essential feature of a 'banked' game is this: The bank pays the winners and collects from the losers," he wrote.

Gretna is among the numerous pari-mutuel cardrooms in the state that offer the player-banked games, which have eclipsed traditional poker in popularity.

In a motion filed on Dec. 15, lawyers for Gretna argued that Hinkle's ruling could put the small facility and its operators at risk.

"Any form of player banking … could be construed to be a crime subjecting Gretna's officers to potential criminal prosecution and possible imprisonment," wrote attorneys David Romanik and Marc Dunbar, who are also part-owners of the Gadsden County facility.

But on Wednesday, Hinkle --- who last month also turned down a request by lawyers for the state asking the judge to revamp his decision --- flatly refused to reconsider his order, saying Gretna had no right to intervene in the case.

"And even if Gretna could have qualified for permissive intervention on a timely application --- not an obvious proposition --- I would exercise my discretion to deny intervention at this late date as both untimely and otherwise inadvisable," Hinkle wrote in the two-page order.

Meanwhile, Gretna is awaiting a decision from the Florida Supreme Court in a lawsuit filed after state gambling regulators refused to grant the track's request for a slot machines permit.

Gretna sought the permit after Gadsden County voters approved a referendum allowing slots at the pari-mutuel.

The Gretna case is focused on whether gambling operators can add slots if county voters give the go-ahead, even without the express permission of the Legislature. The court's decision could have far-reaching implications: Voters in seven other counties --- Brevard, Duval, Hamilton, Lee, Palm Beach, St. Lucie and Washington --- have also approved slots at local pari-mutuels.

Amid the legal wrangling, Gov. Rick Scott's administration and the tribe are again trying to negotiate a revised compact after the Legislature last year failed to approve an accord. Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, recently told reporters that he has made it a priority to get a compact ratified, a move that would require legislative authorization.

 


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